Apocalyptic laughs from Keira Knightly and Steve Carrell
How would you spend your final days on Earth? If Lorene Scafaria’s odd-bod comedy/drama/romance - in which a seventy-mile-wide asteroid named Matilda is due to collide with the Earth in little under three weeks after a failed final attempt to avert disaster - is anything to go by, then chances as are we’re just as likely to return to the 9-5 as we are to lose our minds and start burning/looting/shagging everything in sight. It’s an amusingly bleak notion that dominates much of the first third of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Yes, quite a few people do indeed turn to rampant promiscuity and cheerful drug use when faced with imminent extinction, but just as many resume the mindless drudgery of the day-to-day simply because of how ultimately hollow their lives were beforehand. Here assassins offer the chance for poor schmos to call hits out on themselves rather than wait for doomsday, while the middle classes engage in orgies and the polite partaking of smack. So far so funny then, in a broadly irreverent sort of way.
Just as things begin to hit a worryingly predictable stride however - his wife having left him, Dodge (Steve Carrell) sets about using what little time is left to try to finally make something of his life and reunite with his high-school sweetheart. He embarks on a pre-apocalyptic road trip with neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) and proceedings take somewhat of a tonal u-turn and almost abandon the impudent laughs altogether in favour of some rather more left-field melancholy. The jokes all but dry up, the mood darkens considerably and both Carrell and Knightley are left to do some actual work. It’s a shift that is jarring, ham-fisted, but not entirely unwelcome once the initial disorientation wears off. Just as Scafaria seems to settle into a comfortable - if unremarkable - comic stride, we’re suddenly and without much warning left in eccentrically poignant indie territory that you’d imagine would be awkwardly at odds with Carrell’s usual down-on-his-luck fare. Happily though, it’s this blacker material that just so happens to underscore the effectiveness of Dodge and Penny as an onscreen couple.
Or maybe not...
Although admittedly not the most natural pairing in the world, both Carrell and Knightley excel in showing off a strong refinement in quietly downbeat comedy and as such almost completely convincible as impromptu end-of-the-world-companions without ever stretching the tolerance for quirky romanticism to complete incredulity. It’s Knightley who proves the most surprising though, managing to convey a genuinely idiosyncratic disposition and otherwise untested funny bone whilst also having been unarguably cut from the same cloth as the psychologically fractured, emotionally defensive, generally exasperating and ultimately vulnerable indie girls that have come before (see Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Natalie Portman in Garden State or Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer, to name but a few).
For a film with such a bleak premise at its core, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is, as you somehow knew it would be, actually an uplifting cautionary tale to those who don’t take life by the cajones and get out there and LIVE, damn it. Thankfully the light-to-medium doses of laughs from the films midpoint onwards do help diffuse moments that could have otherwise come across as cheerless and patronising. Scoring highly as well is Dodge’s strained and mostly unspoken relationship with his dad (Martin Sheen), showing that Scafaria is more than capable of wringing stinging emotion out of turbulent family ties even in the face of total annihilation. At its best this is a brave, funny and quietly affecting drama about regret, love, life and the end of days. It’s nowhere near consistent enough to rank among the top of its class, but if you’re in need of a reserved antithesis to all the superhero noise going on this summer then this might well be the apocalypse you’re looking for.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World official website