Setting the end of the world as a romcom backdrop may seem like an original bittersweet idea, and in the hands of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist writer Lorene Scafaria who directs for the first time here, it has so much dark, quirky potential. Indeed, Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World shows glimmers of the satirical in its first act then blends into predictability as its two leads go on a road trip to find ‘the one that got away’ while coming across the inevitable oddballs on route.
An asteroid is fast approaching Earth giving us a few days to do and say whatever we like. For middle-aged, conservative Dodge (Steve Carell), his world has already ended when he discovers his wife has left him. In the midst of his despair, he comes across his young British neighbour, bohemian Penny (Keira Knightley), for the first time. They strike up an unlikely bond as they lean on each other for support in apocalyptic times. When a riot rages outside their apartment building, the pair decides to take a road trip to find Dodge’s childhood sweetheart – the one that got away first time around, after he discovers an undelivered letter that Penny has been holding onto. Their journey leads them down an unexpected path.
Carell easily falls into his Dan in Real Life persona, a likeable chap with rotten luck in love that immediately sparks our empathy as he casts the understated Carell charm. The seasoned comedy actor effortlessly blends in irony too, feeding the indie stance of the whole affair. The casting of Knightley opposite him is a curious and intriguing choice as comedy is not her usual bag, but it strangely pays off. Scafaria gives them the space to allow their characters to grow on us – and each other, with the help of a few retro tunes playing off vinyl and cultural differences. The icebreaker from Knightley is actually: “I won’t steal anything, if you promise not to rape me.” Her direct comments and kooky ideals compliment those of Carell’s as worrier Dodge as they riff off each other to tease out the humour in the absurdity of the impending situation. Scafaria also invests a lot of sensitivity in her characters’ dialogue, a vulnerability that resonates in the looming catastrophe.
After the film’s riot that is a catalyst for the subsequent road movie part, Scafaria’s darkly humorous satire with heroine-shooting parents and boozy kids changes tune and becomes a little mainstream ‘samey’ – like many other road movies on the path of self discovery. While necessary to move events forward and out of the four apartment walls, Scarfaria feels the need to fill the pair’s journey with unhinged characters that neither raise much individual interest – apart from William Petersen’s brief turn as a dying trucker with a death wish – or help the inevitable union. There is also an orgy scene for the sake of having one in diner that again adds little value to the characters’ arc and feels forced and part of another film.
As soppily sentimental as the last part of the film becomes, which will touch you – however ludicrous events preceding are when Dodge relies on family transport to help Penny live out her final dream, the added insurance of playing yet another vinyl and the subsequent apocalyptic dawn drawn us back into the characters’ intimate new relationship and charm us yet again to end on a tragic high. Scafaria makes sure that the apocalypse may be in full impact but the importance of having each other at the last moment is the lasting, comforting thought.