‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’: Enjoy the trip

June 19, 2012


Pre-apocalyptic films tend to be thrillers: Yikes, the world is about to end – how can we escape or avert imminent disaster?

But Lorene Scafaria’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” strikes a different chord: one that is wistfully romantic, a little melancholy and unexpectedly funny.

Not fall-out-of-your-chair funny. But unexpectedly funny nonetheless: Within this obviously downbeat setting, people go on with their lives – or step out of their lives – in ways that are human and, as a result, amusing.

Written and directed by Scafaria (who wrote “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” an underrated and low-key little millennial rom-com), “Seeking a Friend,” which opens Friday (6/22/12), is about just that: the last-minute quest to connect. Connection feels like life, even in the face of certain death.

Steve Carell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman who is still going to work and answering the phone, despite the fact that the TV news has just announced the world is about to end. A gigantic meteor is going to strike Earth, causing a cataclysm, and all efforts by Earthlings to deflect or destroy the meteor have now proven futile. So – buh-bye.

Dodge isn’t a quitter but he’s not exactly a go-getter, at least not until a moment of revelation (or two). The first involves his wife, who runs away with a lover Dodge was unaware of. The second involves a cute neighbor in his apartment building, Penny (Keira Knightley), who’s been accidentally receiving Dodge’s mail for more than a year but has neglected to mention it (because the two of them have never actually met).

But he helps her out (she’s dumping her faithless boyfriend played by Adam Brody) and finds the fateful piece of mail. It’s from his high-school girlfriend, the only woman he’s ever really loved, the one that got away. She wrote him before the end was conclusive, hoping to possibly connect, if he’s free.

So Dodge and Penny take off in a car – she, promising to help him track down the old girlfriend; he, promising to help her find a way back to England to see her family before Doomsday.

At which point “Seeking a Friend” turns into a road movie, in which this unlikely pair – the sparkly Penny, the downbeat Dodge – traverse the eastern Seaboard in hopes of accomplishing their mission. Their modes of transportation keep changing, but their quest never varies.

These journeys, of course, are never about the trip itself as much as the interior voyage each character makes. Penny and Dodge learn things about themselves, and find themselves letting go of old hurts and regrets as they let their situation sink in. There is only the moment – no day but today, as the song goes.

Scafaria has assembled a large and varied cast to play single sequences along the duo’s path – and the actors all bite into them with gusto. From Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt (as old friends who have decided to turn their final days into a bacchanalia) to William Petersen (as a truck driver who contracted with someone to murder him unexpectedly) to T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs (as bizarrely funny hosts at a Friendlys’-like eatery), the small parts are well-filled and well-played.

But this isn’t a yuk-it-up, anything-for-a-laugh comedy, as I’ve noted. Scafaria isn’t afraid to simply let these characters be, riding along with their own thoughts or sharing quiet moments the way new friends do. There’s a lyrical quality that offsets the incipient mayhem that always threatens offscreen.

Carell gives a nuanced, quiet performance, comparable to his work in “Little Miss Sunshine,” a mode he hasn’t been allowed to approach in recent years. He proves once more that he can be a soulful actor, as capable of conveying real pain and longing as any performer around.

Knightley is also solid, the Pollyanna who can never quite get it together to realize that time is running out. She has a lovely, open quality for this character, playing someone who can never quite process all the bad stuff because she won’t let herself.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is sweet and sad, a little film whose charms are numerous but which never overshadow the larger issues at hand.

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