Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love Steve Carell; love science fiction
I’m “biast” (con): generally not a fan of romantic comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
You’ll never guess what other movie from this year Seeking a Friend for the End of the World most reminded me of. Go on, give it a whirl. Here’s a lighthearted romantic-comedy romp through humanity’s final, ultimate apocalypse starring a goofy couple who (maybe) fall in love along the way. This would be most like what other film of 2012?
It’s The Cabin in the Woods.
That horror flick astonished me with 1) how it so inventively highlighted how ridiculous the genre’s conventions by exaggerating them even further, and 2) took the genre to what feels so much like a decisive end that it’s hard to see how anyone can make a straightfaced example of the genre again. And Seeking a Friend does exactly the same thing for romantic comedies. All the heightened emotions and the outrageous urgency of all those stories about people chasing love are actually appropriate here. All the absurdities that define the genre — not accidentally but deliberately — suddenly work in its favor, and not against it. She’s with that guy? Why the hell not: the world will be ending in three weeks’ time. You think Grandma and your biological clock are putting pressure on you to find Someone Special? That’s nothing to the unstoppable asteroid with planet Earth in its sights. So what if a romance, after that first blush of attraction, might be doomed. So is everything else. It’s gotta be super easy to believe that the nice, cute person in front of you is the love of your life when your life and everyone else’s is now being measured in days.
Note that I’m not saying one way or the other whether Steve Carell (Dinner for Schmucks, Despicable Me) and Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go, The Duchess) end up together and in love by the end of End of the World. Nor am I gonna reveal whether humanity gets a last-minute reprieve, either. But the way that writer-director Lorene Scafaria plays it, the end is absolutely, most definitely nigh for them, and for all of us. (Scafaria is making her feature debut as director; she previously wrote the charming Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.) The film opens with Carell’s Dodge listening on a car radio to a news report about the destruction of the last possible mission to destroy Matilda, the asteroid bearing down on Earth — so that’s it; there’s no stopping this planet-killer now. Maybe somewhere Elijah Wood is racing to an underground bunker, but this is not that kind of story. It’s the kind of story we haven’t really seen before, about an apocalypse from which there is no hope of escape, and how everyone who knows there’s no escape copes with that. (The only other example I can think of: the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, by Don McKellar, which is far grimmer.)
Dodge finds himself suddenly alone because, just after that news report, his wife (played by Carell’s real-life spouse, Nancy Carell) jumps out of their car and runs off — see, you opt for the really quickie divorce in this situation. He learns a little later that the marriage was even more badly off than he’d already known, and now he is resigned to spending his last few weeks “catching up on some me time.” That plan is scuttled when his neighbor, Penny (Knightley), who is having romantic troubles of her own, convinces him to hit the road with her in search of his first love, whom he hasn’t seen in years. And why not? He’s got literally nothing to lose, and nothing better to do.
Unlike in most romantic comedies, our protagonists here are the most reasonable people we encounter along the way. No one has anything to lose, and all bets are off. The bittersweet genius of Scafaria’s story comes in depicting what happens when everyone is suddenly living life unburdened with expectations and responsibilities, and Dodge and Penny’s road trip is a journey through humanity unshackled. There’s humor and shock in much of what they witness (though not that much shock, considering the circumstances, and the very darkest that some people would get up to is left unexplored, though some of what’s left is still pretty dark). It’s a mishmash of the best and worst of humanity that may well provoke you into considering how you’d behave under the same deadline-looming circumstances. It’s also, oddly, sorta glorious in its wonderful mundanity: Some people wanna spend their last days at garage sales? Surfing? Dedicated to reading the now-pointless news on TV? Maybe we weren’t so bad, on the whole, after all…
It’s the “maybe we weren’t so bad” stuff that got to me the most, and I cried as much as I laughed — actually, I probably cried more. No silly pop song on a jukebox in the background could pass by without striking me like a slap: That will be gone forever, erased from the universe as if it had never existed. Every little getting-to-know-you story that Dodge and Penny share on their road trip — the standard fluff of rom-coms — comes here with a bitter, bitter sting of ultimate fruitlessness: Penny’s parents’ vintage cherrywood turntable will exist no more. Even all human memories of such things will be eradicated forever. It’s all completely and utterly heartbreaking, fueled by hugely poignant performances by Knightley and (especially) Carell, and by an existential power that no other romantic comedy could ever hope to achieve. There’s a quite literally insane and most likely impossible little quest that comes in at the end of the film that in any other rom-com would make you slap your forehead at the idiocy of it: indeed, it’s an end-of-the-world exaggeration of that run to catch The One That’s Getting Away at the airport or on a train platform. But here? How can they not try? This is absolutely, positively, no-doubts-about-it the moment to be impractical in pursuit of something you need… and to make a sacrifice for someone you care for.
Perhaps the loveliest thing about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is how uncynical it is, particularly compared to how rom-coms, at their worst, tend toward playing up cruelness, stupidity, and selfishness of people supposedly on a quest for love. Here, when so many people around them are indulging their baser humanity, Dodge and Penny retain the best of what makes us human… which only makes their impending demise all the more affecting.
Yeah, so… not so lighthearted a romp after all.