In twenty-one days, a seventy-mile-wide asteroid will vaporize the Earth: no more putting off that bucket list. That’s the premise of the comedy-drama Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has a strong starting point there, though the road trip that follows is something of a ramble instead of a well-mapped journey.
Steve Carell plays Dodge Petersen, a sad sack insurance agent—with a bluntly symbolic name—who can’t bring himself to embrace the “anything goes” ethic seizing all of his friends during these end days. Unceremoniously left by his wife, Dodge dutifully reports to work and resists the urging of friends (including Connie Britton and Rob Corddry) to find the nearest warm body. “I’m not going to spend the last month of my life getting to know someone,” he insists. “It’s ridiculous.”
Of course that’s precisely what happens when Dodge abruptly gets to know his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), a flittering Brit who’s about had it with her boyfriend (Adam Brody). It’s her parents she pines to see before the end of the world, so with Dodge’s encouragement (and the promise of a private plane at the end of the rainbow), Penny grabs an armload of record albums and hits the road. Dodge has his own agenda: to reunite with his high-school sweetheart, “the one that got away.”
Just as no rocket scientist can save this world, one isn’t needed to guess where the story is headed: the fortysomething Dodge and twenty-eight-year-old Penny will emotionally bond and fall in love. But Scafaria settles for convention within her unconventional premise, willfully avoiding the important question of whether or not soulful love can be understood to be real—as opposed to a sort of “battlefield commission” marriage of convenience under the extreme duress of the apocalypse (and perish the thought of whether it might be just as well to face the end without a mate).
Carell and Knightley make appealing leads, grounding the material and helping to earn its tones of melancholy and sweetness. Dodge’s gentle soul and Penny’s lively one prove complimentary in making their way through a changed world, and the actors enable suspension of disbelief (also crucial: a late appearance by an unbilled actor of note). In an open frame of mind, one can easily accept the film as a life-affirming romance, despite the upsetting foregone conclusion.
But for the apocalyptic circumstances to be more than cheap window dressing, Scafaria owes us more thought and insight and satiric zest than her film offers up. Not enough of the jokes about total abandon, or the lack thereof, in the face of doom land on sure footing. And worse, a running gag about Dodge’s dimwitted Hispanic maid (Tonita Castro) continuing to clean his apartment condescends terribly: she’s too happy to serve to consider going home and being with her family. Yeah, maids love their jobs and their bosses more than life itself: that sounds right. Emotional resonance is for middle-class white people. Fans of the leads probably won’t feel cheated, and Scafaria appropriately sticks to her apocalyptic promise, but Seeking a Friend for the End of the World should have looked a bit harder.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]