Silver Screen: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World **1/2
The end is nigh. An asteroid headed for Earth is set to make impact in less than three weeks, and the final mission to stop it has literally flamed out in space. Humanity is doomed, but there will be a twenty-day waiting period between notice of cancellation and termination of services.
So what do you do with your remaining time?
That's the overarching question in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a dramedy from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist writer Lorene Scafaria. For life-insurance agent Dodge (Steve Carell), the answer is to stick to his routine after his wife abruptly and literally runs off. He goes to work where one colleague (Rob Huebel) turns suicidal and others jockey for suddenly vacated top-level positions. Dodge has spent his entire life sticking to the security-blanket comfort of a regimented schedule, and he's not going to divert from it now. At least not until he has a run-in with his flighty, free-spirited neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), an impulsive, irresponsible, narcoleptic Brit who missed the last flight back to England and is now stuck alone with her loser ex-boyfriend (Adam Brody). Intrepid modern moviegoers know that these manic pixie dreamgirls exist specifically to shake up the lives of melancholy loners and awaken them to the splendor of existence.
Far be it for Scafaria to let the secular apocalypse stand in the way of some good, old-fashioned romantic-movie clichés, so Dodge and Penny set off on a roadtrip together that serves as a sampler platter of pre-apocalypse lifestyles. Dodge's best pal Warren (Rob Corddry) is hosting a perpetual party of drugs and carefree sex with his still-bored wife (Connie Britton). Penny's ex (Derek Luke) is a survivalist hunkering down in a bunker with a few capable folks and a six-month supply of food and water. Others just want to revel in destruction as they riot away the world's fleeting moments of being.
If it sounds a bit like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is lacking the -edy part of dramedy, it's not for lack of trying. Writer/director Scafaria continually tries to steer this somber roadtrip romance into more whimsical territory with bit parts by comedians like Patton Oswalt, T.J. Miller, and Amy Schumer, and detours into silly setpieces like a T.G.I. Friday's-style corporate-chain restaurant where all the employees are rolling on ecstasy and doling out good times to the few remaining customers. But the vibe keeps turning terminally morose as Scafaria struggles with tonal consistency, never quite finding the balance between pathos, gallows humor, and the possibility of transcendence.
The most successful element of the film is, surprisingly, the romance. Carell, in full-on sad-sack mode, would seem totally mismatched with Knightley, but they have an odd chemistry that makes you wish Scafaria had chipped away the ensemble bit and focused solely on this doomed budding relationship.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World bears a striking resemblance to Last Night, a 1998 Canadian film from writer/actor/director Don McKellar. It's another ensemble piece about the final day before the impending and long-expected destruction of the Earth, which links many of the stories through an unlikely friendship between two strangers (McKellar and Sandra Oh) who have just met. McKellar never explicitly says what form the end of the world will take, although the sun grows steadily brighter and more intense throughout the film, implying some kind of massive solar event. Oh and McKellar stumble through a lot of awfully similar scenes-- ordinary citizens rioting, introverted folks indulging in orgies and non-stop parties, a wave of suicides-- on the way to a beautiful final sequence that is nearly identical to the last moments of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
I'm not claiming that Scafaria intentionally stole any material from McKellar, but regardless, Last Night is a movie with identical goals and a similar approach that is utterly superior in execution. Scafaria's attempt to turn the concept toward comedy is ambitious and impressive, but perhaps misguided. McKellar's film is both less conventional and more straightforward; it's also the one that most merits watching.