If you knew the world was ending in 3 weeks, what would you do with your remaining time? Would you have wild, orgiastic parties? Hire an assassin to off you before the asteroid hurtled into the planet and destroyed us all? Or would you pretend that life was going on like normal? Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, writer Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, poses these questions as it follows an introverted older man spending the last few weeks of his life trying to figure out his purpose, or if he ever had one. Scafaria weaves a strange, episodic tale boosted by an exceptionally gifted cast, specifically leads Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
The admittedly off-kilter pairing of Carell and Knightley pays off massively as the story progresses. Carell plays Dodge Petersen, who begins the film watching his wife run away from him once it’s confirmed that an asteroid will obliterate Earth in exactly 3 weeks. Dodge tries to continue his dull daily life, going to his insurance-company job, dealing with the cleaning lady, and watching the news. But soon he comes in contact with his next-door neighbor, Penny (Knightley), whose cheery, uncynical nature attracts him. As rioters descend on New York, Dodge and Penny leave the city with separate goals in mind: he’s hunting down the girl he met in high school who got away, and she wants to fly home to England to see her family one last time.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a movie that fits the old cliché, being more about the journey than the destination. Though Dodge and Penny are actively trying to reach their unique end points, what makes the film so unexpected and compelling are the many nooks and crannies they explore down the Eastern Seaboard. People react to the end of the world in vastly different ways—some run, some come together, some take apart. While many of these supporting characters strike us and Dodge (who’s more of an audience surrogate) as crazy at best and dangerous at worst, it’s always entertaining. Scafaria’s script has to walk a very delicate balance between pathos and raucous humor. She doesn’t always attain that balance—the second half of the film is almost entirely laugh-free, on purpose. But she mines an impressive amount of comedy out of a seemingly tragic concept.
But perhaps her best move is populating the film with so many charming and talented performers. Carell and Knightley may not seem an obvious couple, but their chemistry is unforced and natural. Knightley’s not often called upon to do lighter comedy—and strange as it may sound, Penny is a ray of sunshine in this potentially dark story—yet she feels perfectly appropriate as Penny. Carell became popular through his work on “The Daily Show” and “The Office,” so many people assume he’s best in outrageous, full-on comedies. And he’s an adept comedian, to be sure; however, his strengths lie in less bluntly comedic fare. He manages to get the audience to feel sorry for Dodge without it ever seeming like blatant pity for a character who needs it to thrive. It’s a shame that Steve Carell gets placed in loud, frequently unfunny comedies because he’s possibly one of the better actors in his generation. Here, at least, he continues to prove he’s an unsung talent.
The supporting cast, which is vast, works well in surprisingly small doses. On the one hand, getting people like Patton Oswalt, Rob Huebel, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, Adam Brody, and Gillian Jacobs to show up in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World for just one scene each may be sacrilege. But Scafaria, for the most part, shrewdly knows exactly how much of each actor we need to get. (Huebel, an extremely funny comic actor, has literally one line, so he’s the outlier.) Even those actors called on for less outrageous material—William Petersen has a memorable scene as a helpful truck driver—do a fine job and leave an impression on the two leads.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that Scafaria falls prey to a woeful romantic-comedy cliché in the last act that’s meant only to extend the characters’ struggle for no reason aside from padding the script. But otherwise, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an excellently rendered, honest, sweet film. It may be daring to open with characters indulging in outrageous amounts of hedonism, and end on powerful and sincere declarations of unity, but Scafaria balances the tone just right here. The summer movie season is about halfway through—this may be the first true sleeper sensation, a movie that you’ll be happily taken off guard by.