Expectations can mean everything when you go into a film. That’s usually a problem for that certain class of movie which defies definition at almost every turn. It’s the kind of movie that often flows from a first-time director and writer. It’s also the kind of film that plays best in the festival circuit where the audience isn’t really looking to so much pigeonhole a movie as much as a mainstream audience does. When Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World decided to join a crowded summer of blockbuster anchor films, it invited such expectations. I won’t deny that I had them. And this is a case where I walked away from a film very much unlike what I expected…for the better.
The world is about to end. An asteroid named Matilda (huh?) is careening toward the Earth, and the last effort to pull an Armageddon-style rescue plan has failed. Mankind has about three weeks until the next extinction event on planet Earth. People react differently to the news. There are the expected riots and chaos, of course. Some use the news as an excuse to party, as if they really needed one. Some reexamine their lives, while others turn to spirituality. Some just want someone to spend the end with.
Enter Dodge (Carell). His wife dumps him when she hears the news. His reaction is an almost numbness as he attempts to go about as near a normal life as possible. For Dodge, that means trying to explain to his insurance clients that their coverage doesn’t have the extra Apocalypse rider. It seems that costs extra. His friends attempt to fix him up with another lonely soul, but his heart really isn’t in any of it. Then he begins to think about Olivia, his old sweetheart. The passion re-ignites when he learns that his free-spirit and flighty neighbor Penny (Knightley) has kept his mail for three months that had accidentally been delivered to her apartment. In the stack of stuff he finds a letter Olivia wrote that appears to show she still had an interest in him.
Penny’s life is also a mess. She breaks up and makes up with her live-in boyfriend. All she really wants is to get home to her family in England, but interference from the approaching Matilda has caused all airlines to be grounded. One bit of good news is that we’ll also get to spend our last three weeks without cell phones. Suddenly, this whole end of the world thing isn’t sounding so bad after all. Dodge decides to go see Olivia, and if Penny helps him to get there he’ll hook her up with someone he knows with a private plane.
On the road they meet an assortment of odd people, including CSI‘s William Petersen as a man who hired a hit man to kill him before Matilda showed up. There’s also a Friendly’s knock-off where the staff continue to run the restaurant for kicks. Of course, the film broadcasts its punches enough that I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that the two come to the uncomfortable conclusion that they were meant to be together.
What about the whole expectation thing? The first expectation deals with Steve Carell and the idea that this is a romantic comedy. You expect the movie to be more amusing than it is. The first thirty minutes let you continue in that expectation, as the film has quite a few mild laughs. Carell actually goes against type and deadpans most of his performance. You think it’s a joke for a while, until you discover that he’s really playing this one quite seriously. There’s some range here I’ve never seen from the actor, and my respect for his talents has gone way up after watching this film. Keira Knightley has pretty much moved into the independent film world and appears very much at home as Penny. Again, I’ve seen more range here than I would have ever given her credit for in the past. Both put on understated, but amazing performances here. It even makes up for the fact that the couple don’t really share a ton of chemistry at all. They manage to still make this rather unlikely couple thing work effectively enough to draw on the emotional payoff the film is working toward.
Give Lorene Scafaria some credit here. She never tries to do too much and avoids the temptation to go big. The asteroid is wonderfully underplayed. It’s the driving force in the story, but we’re only given the most subtle reminders of its impending impact, pun intended. A few news stories in the background and a moving exit by a journalist are all she really provides. She also doesn’t try to sell the couple as a whirlwind romance. There aren’t any slow-motion running into arms or passionate sex scenes to hit you over the head here. Sure, you know where it’s going, but Scafaria knows how to allow the subtle nuances of the story take you there. Even the ending avoids the dramatic, rather going for the understatement again to make its point. There are some wonderful appearances by Martin Sheen and William Petersen, but they too are understated. These “stars” aren’t allowed to run away with anything. They make their entrances, play out their vital parts, and exit gracefully. There’s not even a terribly great amount of dialog here. In the case of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, less is so much more.
The truth is that I found myself admiring the film in spite of some nagging desire to hate it. I don’t necessarily want films to move me. Scafaria does it by never letting you see it coming, while being entirely predictable at every turn. It’s a skill like anything else, and it’s not an easy place for newcomers to play. I guess “the apocalypse has leveled the playing field”.