What happens when mankind learns that a giant asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and there are only 3 weeks till impact? I know, I know…it sounds like the premise behind “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact” and it is, really, but it’s ALSO the premise behind first-time director Lorene Scafaria’s romantic comedy, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”.
Oh yes, you read me correctly: this is a romantic comedy (albeit with some dramatic moments), not an action movie. There are no space ships, explosions or serious presidential monologues about the inevitably doomed future of the human race (which, incidentally, I found refreshing). So, how do you turn a devastating, disastrous situation into a romantic comedy? Well, it helps to have Steve Carell as your lead, for one.
And now, just a small diversion to cover the plot: Carell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman whose wife literally runs away from him after finding out that the mission to destroy the life-threatening asteroid has failed (I guess Scafaria couldn’t help but give a cinematic nod to Michael Bay and Mimi Leder). Dodge’s wife, it turns out, would much rather be with her boyfriend – the one that Dodge doesn’t know about till a neighbor spills the beans – than spend the last 3 weeks of her life with someone who, admittedly, doesn’t know what he wants out of his remaining time on Earth. Enter Penny (played by Keira Knightley), the aforementioned neighbor. Penny is British, eccentric, has a loser boyfriend and loves her records. This unlikely pair of souls flees the city in search of their own perfect endings: Dodge wants to reconnect with his high school girlfriend (“the one who got away”) and Penny just wants to get home to her family (did I mention that during The End of Days, all planes are grounded and Penny is British? Hmmmm….that seems…difficult.). So far we’ve got one part disaster, one part road journey, one part chemistry.
The good news is that there are a lot of funny, sweet and shocking moments in “Seeking”. Back to Carell’s performance: for an actor who plays largely comedic parts, Carell has an interesting mix of melancholy, awkwardness and wry humor in his portrayal. Instead of shooting heroin, having tons of meaningless sex, or making out with his friend’s hot wife (Connie Britton), Carell’s Dodge trudges to work longer than he should, purges his apartment of all his wife’s clothes when he knows she’s not coming back, and guzzles down cough syrup with codeine because he can’t bring himself to try anything stronger. Dodge is someone who has lived so long in ambivalence that one more world-ending catastrophe doesn’t make that big of an impression on his state of being. It’s cliché, but Dodge is searching for meaning in a life wholly without meaning.
Additionally, humor within the movie does much to point out the ridiculousness of human nature: end of the world traffic jams; the prevalence of assassins for hire (why wait till the end? Why not just go quick and easy?); the running “Countdown to the End of Days” on the news; and exorbitantly jacked up retail prices are just a few examples.
The bad news is that the movie falls back on a generic plot device (I won’t ruin it for you but you can probably guess what happens between Knightley and Carell because, well, it IS the end of the world and all). I’m not saying it’s not possible for two people to fall in love (ooops! Sorry. I ruined it for you even though I said I wouldn’t. I couldn’t help it) in just under 2 weeks, but let me say that it’s highly unlikely. Not to mention that Carell and Knightley make an odd couple. When the moment happens, it comes too late in the narrative and it just doesn’t seem believable. (Maybe it’s the age difference? Sorry Steve Carell, no offense, but even during the End of Days, the chances that you’re hooking up with Keira Knightley are slim-to-none). Not that the two leads don’t try their darndest to make it work. Keira Knightley is quite charming and her character’s vulnerability and sense of regret definitely come across. The problem is, when Penny and Dodge declared their love for each other, I found myself wishing that the movie had stayed on its original path, with both characters finding individual closure. You shouldn’t wish for the two main characters to NOT fall in love, should you? Unfortunately, “the End of the World” gets wrapped up into a neat, formulaic ending and you don’t get nearly enough devastation.