How many times have you seen this premise played out in film or other forms of entertainment: The world is going to end and there’s one last ditch plan or effort to save it (It inevitably succeeds, of course!); alternatively, the world has ended already and we’re left with post-apocalyptic society picking up the pieces. The premise is everywhere; the fascination with the end of days has been evident throughout our popular culture for decades. Yet, the thing about these two premises is that it avoids a (quite large) important question about the nature of the situation. What if our last ditch effort doesn’t succeed? What if there is no post-apocalyptic setting giving us hope for a re-built future. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”, a brand new film directed and written by Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) attempts to focus on that gap often glossed over by apocalyptic fiction. It assumes there is no hope, there is a conclusion, and how do we deal with that?
It’s a comedy drama that pokes fun of the absurdity of a monotonous society coping with the conclusion of all civilization, while interweaving a touching romance between two people with broken pasts and deep regrets. Yet, it is a movie with some notable flaws, mainly in how it focuses its attention.
The premise is fairly simple, and rightly so. There is a large asteroid named “Matilda” barreling towards Earth and its impact will wipe out all life on our beloved planet. The film starts with the announcement that the last chance for Earth’s survival, a space mission to destroy the asteroid, has failed due to a fire on board the vessel. With only three weeks left to live, insurance salesman Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) must decide how to spend the rest of his life. He decides to chase down an old highschool sweetheart and is accompanied by his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley) who wishes to return home to see her family one last time. They meet several characters in their roadtrip journey through pre-apocalyptica, including characters played by Rob Corddry and Martin Sheen.
The simple premise seems familiar due to its subject matter (C’mon, it’s 2012. I’m surprised there hasn’t been even more apocalypse movies flooding the theaters). Yet, strangely it feels fresh simply in how it handles itself. As said, most movies focus on the last daring mission to save mankind from certain destruction, or assumes that certain destruction really isn’t the end. People like to see hope, they don’t want to be confined by fate. This movie takes a different approach. Right off the bat it basically tells you there is zero hope, zero chance of getting out of this mess. Now what do you do? This particular premise lets comedy shine for the first two acts of the movie. There are subtle jokes, like the absurdity of naming a rock about to destroy all of mankind “Matilda”.
There are more traditional joke set-ups, favoring quick joke-punchline material that is mostly laugh-out-loud funny. And there is a fair amount of dark humor, simple funniness in the absurdity of how people treat the end of days. People mowing their lawns, still cleaning houses, even cops who continue to pull people over all poke fun of how people cannot let go of even the most monotonous of tasks that define their lift – regardless of how pointless they are due to the situation. Or the people who just let go and want to spend their last days without care, throwing themselves into orgies, drugs or riots. However, the tone of the drama limits the humor of the movie, favoring those kinds of moderate laughs over hysterical or hilarious moments. That’s the underlying issue of the film: that it feels like the humor is constrained due to fear of it undermining its drama.
Those who expect a comedy movie will only get two-thirds of one. And those who expect a drama movie will get mostly one. By no means does it fail at comedy or drama, but it just does not strike that delicate balance to be both in the same setting. The last act of the movie almost completely drops the comedy in favor of a dramatic and romantic conclusion. It’s not a huge fault, because the writing, and well-paced relationship development between the two main protagonists (Dodge and Penny), means that their inevitable romance seems natural, honest, and believable. The comedy is really only around in the first two thirds of the movie to try and keep your attention away from the obvious conclusion to their story – the fact that they end up together (and, perhaps, another conclusion entirely). So, when it does eventually happen, even though it was obvious from the start that it would, it does feel very endearing. The natural chemistry between Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is quite good, so buying their romance is not difficult in the slightest.
Yet, even still, that underlying issue keeps coming back. The fact that the comedy feels like a tool to facilitate a good dramatic ending ,instead of natural focus of the movie, undermines the experience for those who want to get some laughs. If there was a more natural balance between the romantic elements and comedy elements throughout the whole movie and not just the first two thirds, it could bring forth much more powerful comedy and/or drama. That way those who desire comedy or romance would be delighted to get a good deal of both intertwined.
I commend the film for how it handles the subject matter of inevitability. Even though it pokes fun at absurdity and really garners good laughs, it always has this underlying sense of regret, sadness and dread. You’re always reminded in the back of your mind that the world is going to end, but it does a good enough job pulling you into the characters’ last struggle to piece together their lives after decades of failure and regret that you end up really wanting to see them pull through somehow. Its last act is especially poignant, and definitely emotionally strong. Even though the themes of throwing away your past in favor of a happier future (despite it being such a short future) are not well concealed, they still end up being particularly strong. A film that can really make you appreciate what you have outside the film and the limited time you have left to enjoy it has to be commended for making you think.
“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a fairly powerful romance drama that focuses on how people deal with loss, regret and the prospect of inevitable fate. More importantly, though, is that it focuses on how people can build something profoundly beautiful even in the last moments of their lives – regardless of their pasts or (lack) of future prospects. It has comedy in the movie, but it never really shines nor intertwines with the drama. They almost feel like two separate elements that struggle to mix together. Yet, the comedy is mostly laugh-out-loud funny and the drama is quite poignant and endearing. It definitely had the potential to make us laugh to tears or even bring us to tears through drama, but instead it settles for simply making us laugh and reflect.