Music Feature

Film Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

by Piers Marchant
The end is nigh, let's fall in love!

Dir. Lorene Scafaria
Score: 4.7

Dodge (Steve Carell) is a wan, long-suffering insurance agent whose wife has just left him quite literally by opening the car door and running far away into the woods; Penny (Keira Knightley) is a quirky, young British hipstamatic whose most prized possession is her collection of vintage vinyl LPs. Believe it or not, these two unlikely neighbors are suddenly thrown together during the last three weeks of their lives. You see, a giant asteroid is rapidly coming to hit Earth, and the early indications are it will wipe out humanity -- and nearly everything else -- off the face of the planet.

It is indeed a curious way to set up what is ostensibly a road-buddy romantic comedy, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria clearly wants us to believe she's sticking such convention on its ear. Alas, it is only in minute places that she actually does.

The film does at least posit one interesting late-night dorm-room type of question: What would you do with your last three weeks on Earth? Early on we see Dodge in his gym on a treadmill, a huge bodybuilder in back of him pumping iron and admiring himself in the mirror, suggesting human narcissism will be all that endures. Later, Dodge sits in a sparsely attended conference meeting at his office, where the clearly befuddled manager tells them the company is adopting a permanent "casual Friday" dress code. At home, with nothing particularly to do, and not wanting to be set up on a date by his friend's wife, Dodge is profoundly adrift, taking nips of codeine-laced cough syrup and scanning through photos of former girlfriends, which is when he spots Penny crying hysterically on his fire-escape.

It seems she missed the last flight out of the country to her native England, which means she won't be able to reconnect with her family in time for the big bang. Impulsively, Dodge tells her he's planning to travel south to find his first true love -- an old flame whose photo he was just gazing upon -- and can get her to someone who owns a plane to take her abroad. What ensues is a road picture, with the two of them meeting all types of "real interesting" folks, dealing with their impending doom in their own special ways, even as they grow closer and closer together.

If Dodge, a prototypical Carell character -- flat, unrealized and emotionally deadened but still good-hearted -- feels too conveniently likable and unwritten, like a screenwriter's confection; then Penny -- perky, beautiful and adroitly down to earth, the kind of gal who wears a vintage pink chiffon dress with an army jacket, a necklace with a 45-disc, and low-rise Chuck Taylor's -- is an absolute ringer. So perfectly crafted out of the Hollywood Handbook of Lovable Dames, she clutches a Herb Alpert record at the top of her stack of surviving albums and falls for Dodge even though there's no earthly chemistry between them other than possibly that of high-school German teacher and student.

Essentially, the film is a series of brief run-ins with a host of available B- and C-listers (including Adam Brody, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, Rob Corddry and Gillian Jacobs), all set to the frantic pace of a sit-com episode, and with the forced sensibility of an undergrad music blogger. Scafaria, whose debut feature Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist worked along similar lines, tries to inject her film with enough sly musical references to add comedic weight to her characters -- a Misfits poster here, a Wilco reference there -- but it all comes out precious and labored.

It is only near the end, when the film finally settles down, and Scafaria takes the time to allow her characters to breathe instead of setting in motion the next plot device that it bears any weight whatsoever, which is a shame. For all its Screenwriting 101 tendencies, it still manages to at least partially stick to its guns (no spoilers, but this isn't Joe Vs. The Volcano), which is a good sight better than many films of its ilk can claim. There are even a few moments near the end that come awfully close to being downright moving, but it still doesn't satisfactorily answer its lead question. I'm not at all sure what I would do with my last three weeks on Earth, but I damn sure wouldn't spend my time in the throws of a contrived rom-com such as this one.

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