Like There's No Tomorrow
Last weekend, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World crashed harder than the asteroid that ends its characters' world. A tenth-place opening practically guarantees it'll be doused in Magic Mike's ass glitter and completely drained of blood by The Amazing Spider-Man this time next week--unless a miracle happens, and I can convince everyone to save one of the best films of the year from obscurity.
This is a tricky recommendation because writer/director Lorene Scafaria's romantic dramedy is a cinematic Rorschach test. My wife was upset with the ending because a team of scientists/astronauts/sassy-oil-riggers-led-by-Bruce-Willis didn't save Earth at the zero hour from a city-sized asteroid. I was mentally ecstatic because the film stared its bleak premise in the eye from start to charred-rock finish. But we were both weepy and bummed out, and in no mood for Brave,* the second feature in our double-feature date night.
The movie begins with Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife, Linda (Nancy Carell), sitting in a car, listening to a DJ announce the failure of a manned space mission to destroy the asteroid. Scientists, he says, have given the planet three weeks to live. At this moment, Linda bolts from the car and her marriage, dashing barefoot into a park. The next day, Dodge shows up to his insurance-salesman job to find people vacating their desks and managers passing out promotions like free desk candy.
Later, he attends a dinner party hosted by his dysfunctional married friends, Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton), whose decades-long disdain for each other appears to have been uncorked by the prospect of Armageddon. It's implied that the party devolves into an orgy, and Dodge hides in a bathroom to avoid sharing partners with the likes of another friend, Roache (Patton Oswalt), who's spent the last week indulging every chemical and sexual fantasy known to man.
It takes about a week for society to shimmy through the hedonistic denial phase and plow into panic mode. Cute montages of garage sales and surfers clogging up traffic on their way to the beach give way to genuinely terrifying scenes of looting, fires, suicide, and gun violence. Dodge escapes the city with Penny (Keira Knightley), a flaky, young upstairs neighbor whom he's just met. She's depressed at having missed the last commercial flight to Europe (her family lives in Surrey), and he's determined to track down an ex-girlfriend who'd written him three months ago with news of a recent divorce (he didn't get the letter because Penny had forgotten to leave it for him, following a mailbox mix-up).
Their road trip is fraught with peril, both comedic and deadly serious. They encounter a TGI Friday's-style restaurant whose employees dole out complimentary weed and blowjobs with every entree; when their car breaks down, they hitch a ride with a duplicitous Southern gentleman played to the shifty-eyed nines by William Petersen; and they detour to the home of one of Penny's many ex-boyfriends, Speck (Derek Luke), a military man who's tricked out his back yard bomb shelter with twelve-foot-thick titanium walls, a year's supply of food and water, and, of course, a kick-ass video game system.
The journey doesn't end there, but my description of it does. I've given you little more than what shows up in the trailer, and that's the best way to approach this film. To go further is to deny you the unique experience of seeing the blackest of black comedies transform into a nerve-wracking, heartfelt adventure.
Like the Asian house boy in Boogie Nights whose firecracker obsession is established early in the climactic scene--only to underscore the white-knuckle tension of a casual conversation gone bad later on--Scafaria sets up her world as a place where funny moments are always in danger of being interrupted by bodies falling from the sky (not in the sight-gag sense, but in a way that suggests her characters are living through a slasher movie). The tension is so absolute that Dodge and Penny can't walk into a house or a kitchen with big windows without the prospect of discovering dead bodies or getting shot in the face hanging over the scene.
I've read complaints that the movie's tone is all over the place. Nonsense. The negative reaction to Seeking a Friend is due, I think, to audiences' shattered expectations of that they think the movie should be and how it should behave. This isn't the goofy rom-com that Fox sold us in the trailers. And Steve Carell's presence in a movie doesn't, by default, equate to Big Laffs--just as Knightley's presence doesn't mean all the complex emotional drama will be tied up in a feel-good bow by film's end. Scafaria takes the cartoon premise of Armageddon and asks, "What would happen if that movie had gone the other way, and what if it was about real people?" As the planet goes through the seven stages of grief, we're taken on a roller coaster ride of humor, terror, sadness, and unexpected joy. To the untrained eye, this could be mistaken for an "uneven tone".
In fairness, Scafaria could have tightened things up a bit more. Knightley's Penny has, I think, one too many quirks. She dresses like a thrift-store obsessive; has an action-figure-accessory-like collection of rare vinyl albums; suffers from hypersomnia, meaning she can sleep for days at a time and not be jarred by even the loudest of noises--yes, this figures heavily into the climax; worse, yet, her whiny, hipster-musician ex-boyfriend (Adam Brody) has ten minutes of screen time, eight of which are gratuitous.
All is forgiven in the end, though, as The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" fades into the soundtrack. In mankind's last few hours, the streets turn eerily quiet and Dodge tunes in to the final televised news broadcast. These are typically played for laughs, or as info markers in zombie movies, but Mark Moses plays the hold-out TV host as a dignified professional who signs off with solemnity and wishes of peace. For his part, Dodge lays on Penny's floor, listening to records and waiting for the sky to fall. I won't talk about the final moments, except to say that they're tense, lovely, and nearly perfect.
I really need to see this movie again. I love it, but I also need to go in knowing that Scafaria doesn't chicken out. I'll also be able to relax more, knowing which characters are doomed, and which are going to be (more or less) okay. There's a wonderfully deep humanism here that is undercut by the premise's tension; this isn't a complaint, but my experience was like watching a special effects movie for the first time: once the initial thrill of an action scene is over, sometimes I want to go back and experience it as an event, rather than a mechanism for moving forward a story for which I don't know the outcome.
One could argue that Steve Carell is in danger of being pigeon-holed as the sad-sack push-over who learns to turn his life around. That's fine by me, because he's really good in these roles. Though his characters in Dan in Real Life and Crazy Stupid Love could be Dodge's long, lost twin brothers, he tweaks his performances ever so slightly, so we never get the feeling we're watching a repeat. His last film made my top ten list in 2011, and this one has earned a December spot for sure.
It'll take a mighty amazing movie to knock Seeking a Friend for the End of the World out of contention, and a lot of that credit goes to Carell and Scafaria. If you avoided seeing this in the theatre because you thought it looked boring, or because you looked at the truly awful poster and said, "No thanks", I wholeheartedly encourage you to give it a shot. You may just join me in falling in love with the summer blockbuster of romantic movies.
*It's a sad state of affairs when a Pixar movie fails to lift my spirits.