What if Armageddon had failed? Well, if you’re writer/director Lorene Scafaria the story might lead to a quirky odd couple road trip which mixes in equal measure romantic comedy and art film sensibilities. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World opens with insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell) in their car hearing the news that NASA’s last ditch shuttle mission to deflect the asteroid hurtling to the Earth has failed.
People react differently to the news that everyone on the planet has three weeks to live. Linda immediately runs from the car never to be seen again, deciding to embrace the affair and life she’s kept hidden from her husband for months. Dodge’s best friends (Rob Corddry, Connie Britton) throw all caution to the wind going out with a bang that involves a non-stop party, drugs, and booze (even for their kids). Over the course of the film we’ll also see rioters unable to cope with the situation and survivalists planning to start a new world following the end of this one.
Dodge, it seems, is alone in not knowing how to react to the news. He, along with a handful of other coworkers, keeps showing up for work. Despite unfinished business in his life, including reconnecting with the high school girlfriend who got away, he’s in no hurry to do anything at all. And then he meets Penny (Keira Knightley) a vibrant neighbor who owes him a debt and with whom he sets out on a foolhardy mission to reconnect with his former love and get Penny to London – all with less than two weeks remaining until the end of the world.
What may sound like a somber and depressing film is anything but as Dodge and Penny’s wacky adventure works as a nice contrast to, well, the end of existence as we know it. Tonally the film is all over the map. Just when you expect it to get serious it becomes funny or romantic or intentionally awkward. The newness of Dodge and Penny’s friendship, and the near-impossible (but ultimately hopeful and romantic) adventure on which they undertake keeps the story from drowning in what could be a far more depressing tale.
Although more lighthearted than Knightley’s usual fare, she proves more than up to the challenge as Carrell is cast in one of the most understated performances of his career. Sadly saddled with a character who’s more than a little quirky for her own good, Knightley imbues Penny with real spirit and heart which is irresistible for the middle-aged man trapped for years in a loveless marriage. It’s no wonder Dodge begins to think less and less about his old love the longer his trip with Penny lasts.
There are certainly a fair share of laughs, but the deftly handled dramatic moments are far more memorable. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World doesn’t pull it’s punches or find a way to cheat an ending it’s already sold us on. These characters, along with everyone else on the planet, is going to die. It’s how the characters spend their final days that makes all the difference.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the film is a scene where Penny is finally able to talk to phone her parents. The scene works because how natural it feels, given the situation, and the choice to frame the scene from Dodge’s perspective, watching this young woman tenderly weep in joy at the opportunity to talk with her loved ones about even the most banal events, is perfect.
The film isn’t without flaws. In terms of tone the story truly is all over the map and not all of the tonal shifts work as well as I’d like. The scenes with Coddry and Britton early on especially feel too forced. And although I’ll give credit for the script not writing a last second miracle into the plot, all the stories are a little too neatly wrapped up by the time the credits begin to roll.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is neither a but-gusting laugh riot or deep dramatic character study. However, despite its flaws, it’s far from forgettable. Fans of the film’s two leads should get their money’s worth, and maybe even a little extra thrown in for free. This is a film that continues to make you think long after you’ve left the theater, which isn’t something you usually find playing in theaters this time of year.