In case of a fire, what would you grab on the way out the door? In the face of the world’s total annihilation, would you significantly change anything about your life? These age-old questions form the themes in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which represents writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut.
That Penny (Keira Knightley) lunges for her prized vinyl record collection upon learning a rogue asteroid is destined to obliterate the Earth in just 21 days, is no mere coincidence, for Scafaria previously expressed her love of music as the writer of 2008’s Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Just like in that film, Scafaria effectively positions her soundtrack selections here to walk us through her end-of-the-world scenario that will likely catch most viewers off guard -- in a bad way -- as it bears little resemblance to the film advertised in the trailers.
To be fair, the first half of the movie carries the trailer’s straight-up comedic vibe with Steve Carell once again playing the forlorn, woe-is-me character he does so well. He’s Dodge, a happily married, vanilla New York City insurance adjuster who has always played by the rules of life. But upon learning that a last-ditch effort to save earth from a plummeting asteroid has failed, his wife runs away, literally, and leaves him to live out his final days alone. Dodge does manage to pick up a stray dog along the way though.
Just when the city becomes on the verge of erupting into full-scale riot, Dodge strikes a deal with his goofy Brit apartment neighbor Penny. If she’ll drive him across the country to meet up one last time with his high school sweetheart, he’ll take her to someone he knows with an airplane so she can get with her family in England.
It’s an interesting premise for sure, but certainly not an unexplored one. Scafaria begins her end-of-days scenario with a darkly comedic tone. For the most part, citizens see the end of the world as a force of liberation with wild parties where young children are allowed to drink alcohol and adults do heroin and indulge in wanton sex. Business and stores remain open -- but money and service mean little, as shenanigans, fun times, and hamburgers with donut buns become the main course at restaurants.
Then, halfway through the film, Scafaria’s sardonic glimpse into the abyss does an about face. Gone is her witty tongue that once offered an almost farcical look at the recklessness of human nature in the face of extermination, now replaced by pitch-black melodrama with Dodge and Penny’s budding relationship at its center. Sure, their courtship calls for a bit more seriousness, and I admit enjoying the latter half of the film over the beginning, probably because I bought into Dodge and Penny despite having difficulty seeing Carell and Knightley together in real life. Still, the movie seriously lacks a more evenly spread biting tone without such a jarring disconnect that breaks the film in two. Scafaria clearly wanted to be both funny and poignant but wasn’t able to find a way to effectively blend the two. As such, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World fails to fully realize its potential.
Then there’s Scafaria’s pitch-perfect soundtrack that does its best to stitch together the film’s valiant themes and what-if questions we’ve all pondered in the face of an imaginary doomsday scenario. Scafaria didn’t have to search far for the record albums that would become Penny’s evidence about our journeys being too often defined by what we have rather than who we have, as the collection is curated directly from Scafaria’s own. Ironically, she found a way to more greatly affect our emotions with her oddly dissimilar mélange of ditties from The Beach Boys, Wang Chung, Herb Alpert, and Frank Black than she did with the entire remainder of movie.
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.)