SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD. Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Martin Sheen, and Nancy Carell. Directed by Lorene Scafaria. Rated M (Coarse language, drug use, sexual references and violence). 101 min.
This is a dark romantic-comedy about two people, who come together just before the world ends, and fall in love. The drama begins when a huge Asteroid, called Matilda, finds itself on a path to Earth. All attempts to destroy it have failed, and there are three weeks left for everyone on the planet. The film explores what we might do if time was running out, and we had a choice. Would we do different things? What are the things we would most like to do? And what are those things we wouldn’t miss?
Dodge (Steve Carell), an insurance salesman, is travelling with his wife Linda (Nancy Carell), and both hear the news of Matilda on their car radio. Linda flees to handle what is happening in the best way she can, which means, for her, spending her last days with the man she thinks she really loves. Returning home, Dodge comes across a neighbour, Penny (Keira Knightley), who he pulls through the window of his apartment, after he sees her crying outside on his fire-escape. Realising that two means company, and one means loneliness, Dodge and Penny decide on goals they want to achieve in the final couple of weeks, and set off together. She has dumped her boyfriend (Adam Brody), and decides she wants to return to her parents in England. Dodge realises that he has been deserted by an unfaithful wife, and decides to look for the woman he first loved.
In their travels together, they discover that the people around them are spending their final days in very different ways. With all that is happening, their mobile phones no longer work, fuel is scarce, and planes have stopped flying, and many are desperate.
Dodge’s cleaning lady doesn’t understand what is happening at all, and she keeps coming back to clean Dodge’s apartment. People engage in drug-taking and casual sex, described as “creature-comfort”, to test the limits of pleasure-seeking. Some suicide, some pursue pleasure wherever they can find it, while others set out to have a good time in more modest ways. It seems a situation made for bleakness and despair, but the film aims for comedy and achieves it through some very sharp scripting. An “End of the World Awareness Concert” is advertised, for example, and characters talk of “what are (we) going to wear for night, that don’t mean anything?”
The morality of many people’s behaviour is clearly wrong. Parents take drugs, while they encourage their young children to get drunk, because they see no reason to behave otherwise, and they do so because, for them, Matilda “has levelled the field”. There is looting, rioting, and homicide, and total confusion begins to take over. But in the confusion, humanity emerges and wins the day. Dodge mends his fractured relationship with his father (Martin Sheen), and gestures of genuine giving occur amidst the chaos.
It is hard to pull off true comedy, when the finale to life is set so obviously, but the film’s scripting mixes tragic irony, satire, romance and black comedy very well. Steve Carell has a history of melancholic roles, and in this film he looks at times more wounded than romantic, but he does a sterling job next to Keira Knightley, who takes the role of hippie young woman, who seems a most unlikely partner for him.
Laughter doesn’t come too readily when you know everything is going to turn out so badly in the end, but there are some wonderful comic moments such as the Newscaster, signing off for the last time with 16 hours to go, telling people that their watches will need adjusting, because daylight saving is coming soon.
As the end approaches, the movie increasingly reinforces the values of love, friendship, and sharing. With its dooms-day theme, there are definite existential overtones, but in the final run the film conveys movingly a very positive message. Despite what is happening around us, it is caring for each other that really counts.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out August 23rd. 2012.