By Ron Peltier
Seeking a Friend For the End of the World begins as Dodge Patterson, played by Steve Carell, and his wife Linda, played by his real wife, Nancy, sit in a car listening to a news station relay the last attempt to save humanity from Maltida—an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and will destroy humanity shortly after impact—has failed. Impact is a mere three weeks away. Apparently, Bruce Willis and his expert oil-drilling team were not available to save humanity this time. His wife runs out of the car immediately after the station returns to its happy and upbeat playlist. This scene exemplifies the rather bumpy and uncomfortable juxtaposition in the film.
The film combines two cinematic motifs — the end-of-humanity disaster film and “rom-com”; however, that is precisely where the problem occurs with the movie. It wants to be serious and profound, even morose at times, while light-hearted and capricious. This is a tough mix, and often, the film does not work.
Steve Carell’s Dodge is ineffectual, hapless and lonely. The reason he got married was so that he would not die alone, he says. Initially, he still goes to work and conducts his business as he might normally, until he meets his neighbor, Penny, crying on landing. As he enters, she says, “please don’t rape me and I won’t steal anything.” Dodge is hardly capable of such depravity, but at least the film does not pretend that horrible things might be occurring off-screen. Is this going to be a sweet-love story, a harrowing portrayal of humanity’s depravity in the face of annihilation or a reminder about what truly is important?
Penny is played by Keira Knightly, and it is nice to see her in a modern setting—she plays characters that seem perpetually stuck in Victorian England and period pieces. Everyone in the film wrestles with end of times, and she is no different. Together Dodge and Penny decide to reconcile relationships: Dodge looking for long, lost love and Penny with her family. And so here the “rom-com” element begins.
One rather obvious theme presented is carpre diem. As they embark on a journey to seize what’s left of the remaining days, the film loses focus. Clearly, the two of them are “meant” for each other, but somehow they can’t see that. Given the impending end of humanity, the fact that the characters fail to see this is frustrating and pathetic. In a traditional romance, the couple fails to recognize the emerging and deepening affection. When they do finally “discover” it, however, they live happily ever-after. Their scenario affords no such happy long-term ending.
One of the problems as Dodge and Penny embark on their journey is that there is no sense of urgency. Their travels have several detours — the best of which occurs at a franchise dinner, with a staff that embraces “customer service” in literally and figurate ways. The film meanders from one setting to the next each trying to illustrate some profound orientation with life and more specifically what’s important about it. Occasionally, these scenes work. When Dodge visits his long-estranged father, played with appropriate gravitas by Martin Sheen, we are moved and compelled to deeper reflection as to the nature and complexity of familial relationships.
There are some funny moments in the movie, so it’s not all tedium. An “end-of-the-world” party early on at his friend’s house, where inhibitions are quickly eschewed, generates humor. “I brought some heroin” one party goer announces, and Dodge’s friend says, “one more off the bucket list.”
An early summer movie, Prometheus, focused on the origins of humanity, and this one focuses humanity itself. Films and literature have often dealt with our existential crisis; some do it better and more entertaining than others.