The end of the world probably wouldn’t be a very funny place, or at least not one that you or I would find outwardly funny. The laughter that comes from the imminent termination of all life on Earth as we know it would probably be of the “gallows humour” variety; the kind of comedy that means you have to laugh to keep from crying. The directorial debut from screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) Seeking a Friend for the End of the World effectively captures the bitter and the sweet in the lives of two recently broken up souls during their final days on Earth. While structurally the movie certainly isn’t perfect, it comes with a sense of genuine warmth that many films this summer have been missing, bolstered by the finest performance of actor Steve Carell’s career.
Three weeks before an asteroid named Matilda is due to cause and extinction level event on Earth, Dodge (Carell) can only sit idly by as he watches his wife silently walk out of his life forever. One of his neighbours, the chronically unstable and flaky Penny (Keira Knightley), also finds herself on the outs with her on-again-off-again live in indie rocker boyfriend (a nearly unrecognizable, scene stealing Adam Brody). When a riot forces the two from their New York City apartment building, the duo take off on a road trip so Dodge can reunite with the one love of his life that he never got over and so Penny can get to a private plane to make her way back to her family in the UK.
Scafaria shows an understanding of the fine arts of pacing and tone for such a film despite occasionally giving into standard indie movie clichés. From the opening moments until the final frames she crafts a film where anything can happen at any time. People can be laughing one moment and seconds later something incredibly shocking can happen. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation between the main characters – both of whom are still relative strangers in typical big city fashion despite living in the same building for three years – a nerve will be touched that neither one knew was exposed, and the chemistry between Carell and Knightley (as well as their indelibly stacked supporting cast of famous faces including Rob Corddry, Derek Luke, Connie Britton, and Patton Oswalt making all too brief appearances) helps the film go an extremely long way.
Knightley doesn’t have the greatest role in the world here, but she makes it work in ways that only she could. On the surface suffering from some decidedly “manic pixie-ish dream girl” mannerisms (like bringing her record collection along with her and constantly flaking out and blowing off any sort of real wrongdoing) and stuck with several decidedly actorly moments even when they don’t particularly make narrative sense (like breaking down and crying when the film makes great pains to make her out to be the better survivalist of the two), she still manages to make Penny seem like a believable and sympathetic human being. She’s a young woman who never had the chance to get past her quarter life crisis and she’s now stuck living out the rest of her days not wondering “what if,” but instead “who cares?”
The film, however, belongs to Carell who finally gets a chance to put his oddly charming hangdog expression to perfect use. Stuck in a world where people just suddenly up and decide to do heroin for the heck of it and coming down with a cold at the worst possible time, Dodge constantly seeks ways to break out of the numbness that he feels after having the rug pulled out from beneath him one time too many. He has short outbursts of anger and sadness, but much like Penny he has no clue what he wants anymore and he’s too hurt and discouraged to even think about trying to make a connection with anyone new. Even more than a potential love story and a buddy road trip movie, the film wisely centres on Dodge’s need to let go of everything so he can stop thinking about people other than himself in his final days. Carell uses subtle movements, thoughtful pauses, and vocal inflections that suggest equal parts pain and hope.
Together, neither the audience or the character know exactly where their journey will end and as the film grows more and more emotional counting down to the end of days, the more satisfying everything becomes. As they pass through anarchaic chain restaurants gone to hell, deal with police officers with nothing better to do, and break into abandoned homes to cook themselves meals, the audience feels like they are taking a journey with people they would love to be around. Some of it might seem a bit old hat on the surface, but with such grim and fully realized a conclusion looming, it’s hard not to think that it would be a fine way to spend your final few days on Earth.