A strangely affecting film that begins as a broad comedy before settling down into something sweeter, filmmaker Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, about an unlikely friendship that forms as a meteor hurls toward Earth, has a surprising, beating heart that flowers in its final reels—you just have to get through the first couple reels of silliness. The end of the world has been depicted in the movies many times, but here Scafaria, who wrote the clever Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, uses the premise to deliver a light-hearted picture where everyone makes the best of a bad situation, usually through humor. What else can they do?
With two weeks left to live, Dodge (Steve Carell), a NY insurance salesman and Penny (Keira Knightley), his bohemian upstairs neighbor, have some unresolved baggage. Amidst the riots outside, he’d like to find his long-lost love, and she, a British ex-pat, is desperate to see her parents back in England.
What starts as a wild series of escapades, including caution-to-the-wind parties where inhibitions fall away (think children drinking cocktails, recreational heroin, free sex), turns into a road movie as the pair of lonely hearts team up to solve their respective dilemmas. A sweet-voiced, underused Melanie Lynskey shows up in an extended cameo, pining after Carell.
Along the way, a series of wacky misadventures ensue, including a cameo from a bizarre William Peterson as a suicidal truck driver and a stop at a Friday’s-themed restaurant where everyone is having a bit too much of a good time. One caveat here—with the world ending in a mere few days, would gas station attendants, servers, etc., really still be working their regular shifts?
Once we get past the wackiness (and truthfully, it’s pretty obvious stuff) and the film takes a turn toward melancholy, it comes to life in its second half, as Dodge and Penny grow closer, each finding comfort in their friendship.
A few surprise guests show up, including a late sequence where Dodge makes peace with his absent father (an effective Martin Sheen). As the film marches toward its inexorable conclusion, the star-crossed pair, so effectively played by the leads, inevitably realize, too late, that they have found the loves of their short lives, ending on a final, effective shot .
Of course, the end of the world is a common subject for the movies, usually in the disaster vein. In 2011, we saw a lauded exploration of the same subject in Lars von Trier’s interminable Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as estranged sisters facing the end—one with fear, the other without—in a unsatisfying indulgence.
Knightley, superbly holding her close-ups, is cast against type here as the pot-smoking, modern woman (think Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and you get a sense of what I mean) looking for meaning in her final days.
The film’s trailer—all of whose scenes are in the film’s comedic first half—doesn’t hint at the simple pleasures and places Scafaria takes us. By the time this slight film closes, avoiding any special effects, we feel like we’ve been somewhere warm, with two people we like.
3 1/2 stars.