Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
It Will Make You Feel Fine, But It's Really Just Fine
By Tom Houseman
June 27, 2012
From the trailers and the opening scenes, you might get the impression that Seeking a Friend at the End of the World is similar to the Ricky Gervais vehicle The Invention of Lying. Both films have somewhat absurd premises that allow them to push together the star of The Office and a gorgeous, much younger woman from the other side of the Atlantic (only they switched which version of The Office and, as a result, which side of the Atlantic). Both films come up with creative ways to play with their premises, and both feature copious celebrity cameos. Unlike Gervais' film, however, Seeking a Friend is not bound by the coils of its premise, hitting the same joke over and over through different methods, but tries to do something different and exciting. Sadly, the key word in that sentence is tries.
What Lorene Scafaria is attempting with her directorial debut is make a low-concept film out of a high-concept premise. The planet's imminent destruction at the hands of an unstoppable meteor would seem to belong in a Roland Emmerich film, not a rom-com road film. But that is what Scafaria is giving us, a comedy that is kind-hearted but with a dark edge, that finds interesting directions for its very simple story. It is not trying to be anything specific, but rather everything, both romantic and dark, optimistic yet jaded, sweet and bitter. It is an admirable intention, even if the film occasionally loses hold on its own perspective.
The challenge that road films always face is how to keep momentum going without (pardon the barrage of puns) stalling, driving in circles, running itself into a ditch, or even getting stuck in cruise control. Since most road films are a combination of anecdotes and conversations, they need to keep things fresh and exciting, and this is a serious problem that Seeking a Friend is not fully able to overcome. Part of the problem is that many of the conversations that Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) feel dull and generic. They are the sort of conversation that any two people would have in most any situation, which gives them a listless quality that gets old. The side plots are what really keep the film moving, as they are consistently entertaining and, with only a few exceptions, do not go on too long.
The main question that the film never satisfactorily answers is “why Dodge?” Of all of the billions of people preparing for the impending end of the world, why are we spending 90 minutes following one not very interesting guy who, when given the opportunity, passes on doing heroin and refutes the advances of Connie Britton? Is his story more interesting than anybody else's, and if not, why is his worth telling?
The only real reason why Dodge is worth watching is because of Steve Carell. Carell is a unique comic talent in that he is at his best in small, quiet moments. He has an incredibly expressive face that allows him to evoke subtlety and nuance, giving him an entirely different comedic palette than Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell. The part of Dodge, a sad sorry man who suddenly has nothing left to lose, gives Carell free reign to be at his best, and while the performance is not as memorable as his work in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Little Miss Sunshine (mostly because the part is not nearly as interesting), he shows just how much he brings to the modern comedy table.
If you are looking for a laugh out loud comedy, stick to the trailer. The biggest laughs found in the film are given away in the trailer, which, unsurprisingly, sells the film as more of a raucous farce than a sweet, contemplative comedy. Most films push their agenda or ideology onto you, or at least have a specific goal of what you should get out of the movie, but the most impressive aspect of Scafaria's film is that she allows you to get out of it what you put into it.
I left the theater thinking about the various people Dodge and Penny met along the way and how they dealt with their imminent death; some ended the suspense by killing themselves, others sought refuge in hedonism, and a few refused to accept the inevitable. Of course, if you are looking for a sweet love story, that's in there too, and can be enjoyed for what it is. Seeking a Friend is desperate to be enjoyed, however you may choose to do that, and in that respect, it is mostly a success.