‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’ Review
This is a bold idea: an apocalypse movie on a tiny scale, set not amongst the ragtag group of astronauts trying to save the world from an impending asteroid collision but rather in a New York City apartment building where two lonely people try to make sense of what little existence they have left.
As 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' begins, a last ditch effort to blow up an oncoming meteor fails, and the end is officially nigh: in 21 days, the Earth will be destroyed. That's when we meet Dodge (Steve Carell), whose wife takes the news of their certain doom as her cue to bolt from their loveless marriage, and Dodge's neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who sleeps a lot, loves vinyl records, and misses her family back in England. But while 'Seeking's' idea may be bold, its execution is weak. There's more humor and poignancy in the occasional news reports from a comfortingly calm television newsman than any of the scenes involving our two leads.
It starts promisingly enough. The early scenes capture a believable city on the verge of collapse. Some folks freak out, and others do their best to soldier on. At a party, people use the apocalypse as an excuse to try all the dangerous stuff they've always wanted to do; they experiment with heroin and cheat on their spouses. A single guy (a one-scene wonder cameo by Patton Oswalt) explains to Dodge how the end of the world is the best thing that's ever happened to his sex life; suddenly no one cares about pregnancy or disease or standards. Everyone's forced laughter carries just the right hint of denial.
When Dodge and Penny's building gets caught in a riot, the pair jump in her Prius and head south. Their destination is Dodge's hometown in Delaware, where he hopes to find the high school sweetheart that got away and she hopes to find a pilot to fly her to England. As they flee Manhattan, the city looks like it's about to be swallowed by chaos, but once they head into New Jersey, things seem impossibly calm. There are no other motorists on the roads. Homes lie abandoned. Where is everybody? Did the apocalypse happen when we weren't looking? Is this a movie about facing the end or a meandering road trip about a couple of quirky losers and their dog (named Sorry so they can lug around an onscreen symbol of their regret at all times) taking a weirdly sedate tour of the posh Delaware suburbs?
'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' is the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, who previously wrote 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' and clearly favors love stories about mismatched couples thrown together by the inexplicable alchemy of destiny. But in 'Nick and Norah' her words were buoyed by the strong chemistry of Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, something that never materializes between Carell and Knightley, who act more like a young woman and her uncle than a romantic couple.
Carell, giving another in a long line of mopey everyman roles, underplays so many of his scenes you'd swear he was the one cast as a narcoleptic. And Knightley's sleepy record collector Penny, who abandons all thoughts of herself and her own happiness to accompany dour Dodge on his wild goose chase, is one of the more egregious Manic Pixie Dream Girls in recent memory. With doomsday hours away, is the best use of her (and our) time really a lecture on the wonders of vinyl? And why is 27-year-old Keira Knightley lecturing 49-year-old Steve Carell about old records? Shouldn't he know more about the subject, having actually grown up at a time when vinyl was a popular medium and not just a symbol of movie characters' nonconformist taste and sensitivity?
Dodge and Penny's road trip has bipolar disorder: in one scene they wander into a crazy orgy at a faux-TGI Friday's -- a sequence played for funny bone tickles -- and in the next Penny has a final heart-to-heart with her parents -- a sequence played for heartstring tugs. Maybe Scafaria wanted to capture the roller coaster of emotions she envisions people would face at the end of the world, but the mood swings are so wild they obliterate the film's sense of realism as effectively as any wayward meteor.
'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' purports to tell a story we see in movies all the time from a perspective we never see, but really it just swaps one genre's contrivances for another's. It should leave us feeling grateful for the time we have left on Earth with our loved ones, but it left me feeling slightly annoyed that I'd lost some of that precious time wandering through Delaware with Dodge and Penny.
'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' hits theaters on June 22nd
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’