Saturday, 14 December 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

Starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley
Directed by Lorene Scafaria

A giant, 70 mile wide asteroid is heading our way, and the final attempt to destroy it has failed. In three weeks it will hit, and all life on Earth will be wiped out. With the utmost certainty you can say that you have 21 days left to live. What do you do in that time? How do you react? Such is the somewhat far-fetched premise of "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World". But the film isn't about story, it's about character.

The character in question is Dodge, played with an unerringly straight bat by Steve Carell. With the clock ticking down on life on Earth, he discovers that a letter from his teen sweetheart and first love has accidentally been delivered to his skittish British neighbour Penny, Keira Knightley.  So the two of them set off on a cross country mission to find the lady in question, picking up a charming dog, whom Dodge names "Sorry", along the way.  Needless to say things don't go as intended...  There are three distinct movements to this movie. In the first, we see people trying to come to terms with their newly imposed death-sentence with varying degrees of success. In the second there is a slightly unreal road-trip as Dodge and Penny make their way away from the city, and in the third we are met with an emotional resolution on several levels.


In the first act, most people abandon all hope and tend towards anarchy. Some, bizzarely, cling doggedly to their routine, still showing up for work and pretending nothing is going to happen. In these scenes there's a brilliant, severely dark humour in evidence. In one scene at Dodge's office the HR manager offers out senior management jobs vacated by those who have fled, "So, anyone want to be Chief Financial Officer?  CFO?  Anyone?" Dodge himself seems numb to the inevitable future, and carries on turning up to his job as an Insurance officer. A brilliant moment sees him on the phone to a customer discussing the intracies of the "end-of-the-world" policy offered by his company... "Premiums are pretty high"... This surreal refusal to accept the inevitable is illustrated perfectly in the actions of Dodge's domestic help. She vows to see him next week, as he desperately tries to force her to go home and spend time with her family, but she just doesn't undestand, and keeps appearing week after week. It's as funny as it is heart-breaking. Dodge himself at this point just seems like a man with nothing left to give. He trudges into work each day, counting down the days to his death, but wondering what he can do to make any sort of difference in the meantime. A couple of genuine jump-out-of-the-seat shocks punctuate these scenes, but this just adds to the sense of unease.

This is where Penny comes in. Dodge meets her one night when she is out on the shared balcony, deeply upset as she has missed the last flight back to the UK, so believes she will never see her family again. Dodge brings her in and she sleeps on his sofa. She has just split up with her boyfriend and is an emotional wreck; still , the emotionally numb Dodge doesn't try to take any advantage... he just lets her sleep there. In the aftermath of this encounter comes the revelation that the Postman had occasionally delivered mail to Penny which should have gone upstairs to Dodge. Amongst the "lost" mail is a letter from Dodge's sweetheart, which Penny neglected to pass on. An angry and distraught Dodge decides he must track his girl down, and Penny, guilt-ridden, vows to help him.  When she discovers this her first reaction is "Now I feel bad" (!)  Dodge replies "at least you won't have long to live with it."  Thus a rather grimly humourous first act gives way to the "road trip" second act.


It would be so easy to look at this and think it was going to retreat into a typical "couple on the road" rom-com. Whilst it follows that form, it certainly doesn't conform to that standard. The standout moments from this section of the film are meeting a man who has paid for assisted suicide (despite the inevitable oncoming apocalypse), an excessively happy wait-staff at a diner along the way, and getting arrested - the lunacy of which is laid bare when Penny says to the cop, just give us the fine and we'll appear in court... oh, never. But having said all that, it's in these scenes that the relationship between Penny and Dodge starts to grow. She is so vivacious that she starts to draw him out of his shell. The beauty of the film sits in the "will they won't they" facet. He is ostensibly on this road trip to see the woman of his dreams, and she is getting over several boyfriends and desperate to have seen her parents. There is an age difference too. So one thinks there is no attraction. Or is there?

The final act sees them reach their destinatiton and there are varying degrees of fulfillment. Some have said that there were at least three or more moments where this film could have ended but didn't. I understand this;  I can see five potential end points. However, for me, none of them would have been as satisfying as the one we eventually get. It's a marker of how greatly understated this film is that it surprises the viewer with each of these momemts. In one, Dodge arrives to meet his Father, whom he has not seen for 25 years, and who left early in his life; one would typically expect a reconcilation scene to involve tears and apologies on both sides, but we don't get that. We get a highly emotional scene, but with none of the histrionics.

The eventual climax is both beautiful and devastating. Dodge has made a character choice to be alone, but still there is a twist. The scene where he lies in his appartment listening to his stereo and the power finally fails, and he is utterly alone in the dark, is so bleak and affecting. And then there are the final minutes, which pack perhaps the greatest emotional punch of all...

The main things to be said of this film are that the direction is tight and effective. The cinematography is beautiful without being flamboyant. Steve Carell is outstanding - I've often felt that one can be a great actor without being a great comedian, but to be a great comedian one has first to be a great actor; and that's what we see here - a great actor giving a great semi-comic performance. From his measured dullness of the early scenes to the tender melting of the final moments, this is a great screen character embodied. Keira Knightley too is fantastic; I never liked those "Pirates" films at all so I probably had an in-built bias against her, but here she is outsanding, and contributes every bit towards this beautiful love story. On top of the amazing "Never Let Me Go", I've got a whole new respect for her.

In summary then, this is a film I'd heartily recommend. Certainly not for everyone, and certainly it's almost impossible to pigeon-hole. But, I think it's full of wonderful things and great performances, and perfect little moments. And hopefully it will make you think - what would you do?


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