When ‘Seeking A Friend For the End Of the World’ came out in 2012, I was eager to see it as ‘end of the world’ plotlines have always intrigued me for the potential scope they have and perspective they can take. You could make a dozen films with that concept (dramatic or comedic) and they could all potentially be interesting viewing.
Alas, it never arrived in Australian cinemas as despite Steve Carell starring, it was a box office flop and had a lackluster critical response. I eventually saw it recently because, in a funny sort of way, the film’s failure made it more intriguing to me as I was curious to see where the film misused its premise.
As is often the case with these types of films, the film begins with an official pronouncement that all attempts to prevent an incoming asteroid colliding with the earth and ending all life on it have failed and only weeks to live remain. In New York City, middle-aged Dodge (Carell) is understandably lost as to how to react to this situation. While friends around him devolve into debauchery, Dodge initially sticks pointlessly to his dull daily routine (his wife having left him when the end of the world was official) until a chance encounter with British neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) who is grieving over her breakup with her boyfriend. While polar opposite personalities, they develop a friendship bordering on romance but will it survive the end of the world?
SAFFTEOTW can be analysed in two sections; as a broad comedy and as a melancholy take on romance in the worst possible situation.
As the former, the film is a failure. Its attempts at comedy fall consistently flat as they either misfire through poor execution (a workplace meeting where new job opportunities are discussed with weeks till the world ends sounds a lot funnier in concept than it does here) or scenes that just go nowhere. A scene where Dodge attends a party that turns into drug-taking and orgies (off-screen) drifts on aimlessly forever without even a mildly funny moment.
While the writing and direction (both by Lorene Scarfaria) are to blame, Carell’s performance doesn’t help either. He plays his character so inert and passive that he gives nothing to the other characters around him who then tend to overact as a result and any comedy possibilities are largely snuffed out.
Another issue is that there’s a seemingly endless array of fairly prominent TV/movie personalities in minor/cameo roles (Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, Gillian Jacobs, William Petersen amongst others). This has become a bit of a trend in modern comedy to cast like this and it often is distracting more than entertaining, especially when they try to ‘steal scenes’. Most of them don’t work here.
But as a melancholy take on romance when the world is ending (which takes up most of the film’s second half), the film is much more substantive; Scarfaria is clearly more at ease with the romantic and melancholy aspects of the film and perhaps felt obliged to put the comic elements in to make the film more appealing to potential audiences.
As well, Carell’s performance is much more suited to this part of the film as someone who transforms from a dull sad-sack to one who is reborn by finding love and challenging himself. Knightley is OK in her role although the rather forced quirkiness of her character (especially how much the film hammers home her love of vinyl records) is somewhat tedious.
What the film gets right is seeing a couple enjoying and getting to know each other so that basic scenes like them spending an afternoon at the beach is deftly charming. And a brief bit where Dodge sits on the floor of his apartment listening to Penny’s vinyl records is quite effective as well. These seemingly simple scenes work much better than the forced effort of the comedic scenes.
Also working well is the segment where Dodge visits his father (Martin Sheen) who he’s been estranged from for decades. The concept – a father and son reconciling at their final opportunity – seems somewhat unpromising as a rather cliched concept, but thanks for the sincerity of how it’s filmed and the performances of Carrell and Sheen it works surprisingly effectively.
Even in the second half, the film isn’t perfect. There’s a segment where Dodge and Penny spend a night in jail which feels unnecessary and filler material. And it never really gets its timing right as a comedy.
But by its moving finale SAFFTEOTW has despite its flaws become a worthwhile viewing experience, quite touching and sweet in its own way. It’s easy to see why the film failed critically and commercially upon its release, but there are rewards for those who seek it out now.