Chances are, if the world was coming to an end, you already know who you would spend those last moments with. Not everyone is that lucky.
There will be a contingent of people, when an extinction-level event is occurring, as in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," where an asteroid is hurtling toward earth, that will crawl into their well-worn cocoons, isolating themselves to ponder their regrets and wait alone for the inevitable.
In writer/director Lorene Scafaria's lovely debut feature, Dodge (Steve Carell, in finest form) and Penny (Keira Knightley, at once frenetic and luminous) are two such messed-up lonely isolationists...two apartment-dwelling neighbors who stumble into helping each other resolve some of each of their regrets.
She wants to get back to England to see her family one last time. He wants to see a long-lost girlfriend who declared in a letter he was "the love of her life." Off they go together, taking an abandoned dog Dodge calls Sorry.
'Dark and Optimistic'
Their road trip makes for two hours that are both strangely dark and optimistic. All around them, there are riots and looting, Dodge's family and friends are having "fun parties" with heroin and 5 year-olds swigging wine, people are jumping out of buildings or hiring hit men to preemptively kill them before the meteor does.
There are also people finding more joyful ways to go out, as in the restaurant chain where everything is free and every dinner rush turns into an orgy. In these scenes, a wonderful supporting cast shines in both comedic (Patton Oswalt's character glories in the impending doom that has leveled the sexual playing field for the common man) and cathartic roles (Martin Sheen plays Dodge's long-absent father, grateful for a chance to make amends) and makes the movie all the more memorable.
There isn't much time dedicated in the film to those events; it is more the backdrop for the journey Dodge and Penny take and how it evolves. There are moments when the film drags a bit, even as you are caught up in their interaction, and not all the shared screen time with the supporting cast works, as we only see bits of their stories, and some feel superfluous or wildly incomplete.
One could also argue there isn't nearly the kind of destructive or chaotic environment likely in this scenario. No matter, the story is about two people, their isolation, and their journey together dealing with mortality, forgiveness, and faith.
If you wonder if the casting makes sense, Keira Knightley being the gorgeous IT girl ingenue to Carell's aging insurance guy next door, you'll be surprised how much the romantic chemistry works. Knightley's character, who starts out a flighty mess, reveals a more complex set of issues, needs, desires, and passions (as exampled by her eclectic LP record collection, her favorites of which for reasons we discover later she drags along on their trip).
I could fault Carell for falling back on his go-to role of a schlubby sad sack ("Dan in Real Life," "Crazy Stupid Love," "Little Miss Sunshine") were it not for the fact that he has done his best work and shown the greatest character arcs in those films. He is the approachable leading man anyone can relate to, and he knows how best to use it in the roles he selects. There is a realism to his characterizations, inclusive of Dodge, that makes the whole audience connect with him.
No one is surprised by Ryan Gosling getting the girl, but heart-on-his-sleeve everyman Steve Carell winding up with Juliette Binoche or Julianne Moore or Keira Knightley—that's something to cheer for.
A Valentine for Failed Idealists
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is like the anti-"Melancholia," the film by Lars Von Trier I called "a valentine to hopelessness." This is more a valentine to failed idealists, the eternal optimist who knows bad stuff happens every day. Yes, an asteroid might take us all out at any time, but that's no reason not to enjoy a tasty burger with a donut bun. This is a romcom for the open-hearted who aren't afraid of the dark.
Be warned. Scafaria sticks to her convictions to the end—you will see both love and pain in equal measure to the last frame—but one scene between the leads is so gentle and irresistibly touching, it puts all the cliched apocalypse action movies in perspective... In those last moments, do you want to be running for the hills or holding the one you love?
I will be seeing it again, and bringing Siren Spouse. To paraphrase an older Pixar film, "It has a friend in me." It will be great if this wonderful bit of indie quirk finds an audience and becomes a sleeper hit, especially as it had the guts to go up against Pixar's "Brave" and, you know, "Abe Lincoln, Superhero!" It is important for us to support indie movies that don't squeeze into the summer movie mold.
As weekends for movie releases go, this one offers a bit of something for everyone. While I'd avoid "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (in lieu of some better action like "Men in Black 3" or "Avengers"), "Seeking a Friend" is a lovely reason to get out of the heat. Enjoy!
Look for Cinema Siren's reviews of "Brave" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" later this weekend.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren", is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit her gallery website at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews onwww.artinsightsmagazine.com.