After vampires, movie studios these days love the apocalypse (or at least an alien invasion that could bring it about), so it was a matter of time before we started to get different riffs on Armageddon. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” brings doomsday into romantic comedy territory and the resulting story has all kinds of notes, from humorous to romantic to downright dramatic.
It’s a mess of moods fitting of the apocalypse, even if we prefer our films to be more uniform in their genres. Lorene Scafaria (writer of “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) tries to stitch them all together in her directorial debut, and while the seams could be less apparent, “Seeking a Friend” makes solid patchwork of some strong individual scenes and performances.
Who better to lead a film about literally hopeless romance than Steve Carell, whose character Dodge watches as his wife (a cameo by Carell’s actual wife, Nancy) bolts from the car and runs away forever as soon as Earth’s prognosis hits the radio. Thus begins Act I, the comedy portion of the film.
Scafaria does a conscientious job imagining how affluent 40-somethings as well as other types would react knowing the world was set to end in three weeks time. Dodge tries initially to keep some sense of decorum by going to his job at an insurance company where the 10 remaining employees gather perfunctorily and the job of CFO is up for grabs. His cleaning lady continues to come and clean. His friends (among them a couple hilarious small roles from Rob Cordry and Patton Oswalt) try to keep up appearances, but boundaries of taste and fidelity have virtually faded. Dodge resists letting conventions dissolve into nothing, though he’s far from optimistic. That’s where Penny comes in.
Penny (Keira Knightley) is a self-proclaimed serial monogamist and eternal optimist who’s rather harsh on herself. She and Dodge have been neighbors, though only through recent have they come together. As it turns out, Penny has much of Dodge’s misplaced mail, and when she returns it, he finds a letter from his high school sweetheart — the one that got away — expressing how she always felt he was the love of her life. When riots break out in the city overnight, Dodge decides to wake Penny up and flee town with her, and when they do, she encourages Dodge to try and track down his biggest regret.
When the road trips starts, the comedy element of the film lingers, but the trajectory is romance and drama with some lighthearted moments interspersed. Scafaria at least spares us a cheesy build up as far as Dodge and Penny’s chemistry, so the romance doesn’t spoil everything with predictability. In fact, much of the film you’re likely to root for Dodge finding his old flame just to see what happens.
The comedy is quite brilliant when it’s there, so it’s a shame Scafaria abandons it. At the same time, the choice seems natural for a movie taking place right before Armageddon, especially one that’s end game is definitely romance. Carell and Knightley need a chance to interact one-on-one in order for the whole thing to work.
Both actors are excellent, with Knightley infusing some actual dramatic talent into the kind of movie you would never expect her to do with her period piece background. She and Carell get a wide range of moments to play with and they bring the heart and emotion to the film. It’s tough to say if two random actors would’ve produced as believable a connection and chemistry.
At the same time, for all their prowess, some scenes feel strangely out of place as far as tone. On at least two occasions, Penny begins to cry, and while Knightley really sells us on it (you honestly believe her in a scene in which she is finally able to phone home and talk to her family one last time), but the waterworks are squeezed in. I wouldn’t doubt that this would happen in a real-life apocalyptic scenario, but in a movie it’s awkward. It ultimately makes Penny’s motivations (which should be very clear-cut with the world about to end) a little convoluted.
“Seeking a Friend” finds moments of utmost sincerity and wrestles with some intriguing notions such as whether or not our instincts for partnership would or would not be heightened in a doomsday scenario. As a whole, it offers film’s most realistic look to date at how normal people would behave in this situation, yet as the romantic and dramatic elements build, some character motivations and feelings come into question, even though the actors are so convincing.
Boiled down, “Seeking a Friend” offers a true change of pace for the genre led by two strong actors you’d never expect to work together. Maybe that’s part of why it’s tough to completely get on board with what’s going on with the characters emotionally, though there’s little doubt they elevate the material. And it’s strong material too, but the entire package could have been neater.
Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley