Friday, June 22, 2012


(US, 2012)

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.  Cast: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Rob Corddry, Derek Luke, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, Martin Sheen, T.J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs, Bob Stephenson. (R, 100 mins)

The apocalypse has been a recurring theme in recent films like ANOTHER EARTH, TAKE SHELTER, MELANCHOLIA, and 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH.  SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is a more mainstream, audience-friendly look at the same subject from writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who wrote 2008's NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST.  Trailers for SEEKING made it look awfully similar to Don McKellar's 1998 Canadian cult classic LAST NIGHT, which followed various characters on the last night before the end of the world.  No reason is given...it's just a known fact.  SEEKING follows the LAST NIGHT template very closely in the early going but soon establishes its own plot and purpose.  It's a mixed-bag overall, but there are some intermittently moving and powerful scenes. 

Improbably-named insurance salesman Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) is ditched by his wife (Carell's wife Nancy Walls) after a news update announces the failure of the space shuttle Deliverance to blow up a 70-mile-wide asteroid dubbed "Matilda" that's headed straight for Earth.  Deliverance is destroyed and Matilda will collide with the planet in three weeks.  Despondent Dodge tries going about his daily routine and starts entertaining the notion of tracking down Olivia, his high school girlfriend and the "one that got away."  He befriends his upstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who's upset that she missed the last flight back to England to be with her family before the airports closed.  Dodge knows someone with a plane, so they, and a cute dog that someone just left for Dodge to care for, set out on a road trip to find Olivia and get Penny on a flight back home.

As LAST NIGHT showed over a decade ago, this is an intriguing premise and for a while, Scafaria does an excellent job of exploring this new "we've all got three weeks to live" scenario. Dodge witnesses a horrifying suicide that's a shocking jolt to the audience.  He later goes to a party hosted by his friends Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton), where it's essentially anything goes:  Warren is letting little kids guzzle hard liquor ("Work through the burn!") and one partygoer cheerfully announces "Sarah & Dave brought heroin!" prompting one guest to yell "Oh, yes!  Bucket list!"  Another friend (Patton Oswalt) goes into great detail about his extensive sexual escapades since the announcement of Earth's imminent destruction ("I've been with a different woman every day!  The playing field is leveled!  They don't care about diseases or if your dick's too small or if you're related...").  There's an edgy darkness to the opening act of SEEKING, but once Scafaria introduces Penny, it essentially becomes an apocalypse rom-com and it's likely that Knightley will be unfairly blamed for the relatively conventional direction the film takes.  The one-time critical darling has become a bit of a cineaste punching bag recently with her unjustly criticized performance in David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD, which was mannered and over-the-top at times, but if she's delivering that performance in a Cronenberg film, then I'm inclined to believe that's what Cronenberg wanted from her. 

In SEEKING, Scafaria seems intent on making Knightley's Penny into yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term coined by the AV Club's Nathan Rabin in response to Kirsten Dunst's performance in ELIZABETHTOWN, defined as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures"), but to her credit, Knightley tries hard to not play it that way.  Yes, Penny's irresponsible and immature and eccentric and doesn't seem to have a job yet still can afford a nice NYC apartment and put up with a deadbeat boyfriend (Adam Brody) and calls her vinyl collection her "friends," and has a hip, thrift-shop wardrobe, but Knightley somehow manages to keep Penny bearable.  Knightley is not what's wrong with SEEKING.  The problems just happen to coincide with her first appearance.

Scafaria's apocalyptic world only looks apocalyptic when it's convenient for the plot. There's looting, shooting, fires, and rioting when the film needs to get Dodge and Penny out of NYC.  But once they're out, it's calm and tranquil everywhere.  And where does everyone go?  They're in Trenton, NJ and the streets are empty.  The airports are all closed.  Where is everyone?  We're talking NYC and New Jersey, here.  It's not like it's rural or sparsely-populated.  They didn't all commit suicide unless there's the stench of rotting flesh that the characters don't mention. And when the action moves back to NYC, there's no sign of the destruction that forced them out of the city in the first place.   There's also a strangely unsettling detour with Speck (Derek Luke), an ex of Penny's who's a military vet and survivalist with a fortified bunker underneath his house.  Speck is probably the most poorly-defined of the film's characters and it doesn't seem plausible for a second that a guy this no-nonsense would put up with a flighty flake like Penny.  As the film progresses, Scafaria starts piling on the classic rock golden oldies as Dodge and Penny inevitably fall in love (though she does utilize The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" very effectively).  There's nothing bad about SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, but after its dark-humored opening act, it just becomes too safe and too nice.  It starts with suicides and suburbanites shooting heroin but then wants to present the end of the world as a feel-good crowd-pleaser with a catchy soundtrack. There's some really good performances throughout, and some moments of genuine emotion near the end with the revelation of where Dodge is really heading and who he wants to see, but it's ultimately too contrived and too eager-to-please for its own good.

In the end, I suppose SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is about what you'd expect from an apocalypse film released nationwide in the middle of summer. Fortunately, it isn't a straight comedic ripoff of LAST NIGHT, as the trailers certainly went out of their way to convey, and it has some surprising strengths and an admirable darkness...for a while, at least.

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