Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Written by: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Kiera Knightley, Patton Oswalt, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, Martin Sheen
(101 minutes, Color)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins as Dodge (Steve Carell) sits in his car with his wife. The vehicle is at a standstill. The radio announcer proclaims the failure of the most important space mission in history. The mission was to send a shuttle into space to destroy a meteor slated to collide with Earth. The shuttle exploded, killing all inside. Nothing can now stop the meteor, named "Matilda." It will hit Earth in precisely three weeks and destroy all life. The wife immediately opens the car door and runs away. Dodge doesn't chase her. The voice on the radio indifferently assures, "we'll be bringing you your countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites." A title card flashes across the screen: 21 Days Remaining.

This is the sardonic sense of humor that runs through Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which is much darker and sincere than its advertising had audiences believe at the time of its release. Star Steve Carell was one of the most popular funnymen of the decade, fresh off of his hit show The Office and hits like Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the successful film remake of the goofy television series Get Smart!. The previews and posters for the film billed it as a romantic comedy with a quirky, comfortable apocalyptic feel. The premise was not unique: strangers find solace and meaning in the face of death. In a lot of modern comedies of the sort, death never really comes to fruition. It's a type of "oops, you really don't have cancer" or "my bad, turns out we miscalculated the trajectory of the asteroid" scenario. Everyone groans, heaves a sigh of relief, and returns to their lives having learned a lesson. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is too smart for that. It respects its audience too much to pull the rug out from under them with a cheap ending. The fact that this movie closes with the end of all life is an inevitability established from the beginning. What's important is how we get there.

The first act of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World left me feeling empty and depressed, not through any fault, but because of its sharpness and honesty. Dodge is an anomaly in end times: he's a decent guy who follows just about the same routine in the last three weeks of his life as he did for the first forty-some-odd years. He has no interest in taking advantage of people, which sets him apart from those around him. Dodge attends a dinner party hosted by Warren (Rob Corddry) and his wife, Diane (Connie Britton). Diane wants to set Dodge up with the lonely, robust Karen (Melanie Lynskey), who dances seductively in an over-the-top wardrobe consisting of "everything (she) never wore." The adults sit around the dinner table and share what they're going to do with their final days of life. Most have some idea, though their goals are superficial and worthless. One bitter man shares that he is going across the mountains, "to tell my stepdad to go fuck himself."

"And go skiing!" his chipper wife adds without a moment's hesitation.

Before long, drugs become involved in the party. Kids guzzle alcohol while their parents cheer them on. Dodge hides in the bathroom, where Diane tries to hit on him. "But you're Warren's," he says, confused. Diane frowns. "No one is anybody's anymore," she assures him. She's jealous of his wife, who "got" to run away before the end. The next day Dodge goes to work. His manager is handing out upper management positions like candy. The man next to Dodge in the conference room laments, "life has no meaning." The next day, as Dodge pulls into his parking place, a body crashes onto his windshield with a sickening thud. It's the conference room guy.

The reason I felt saddened watching all of this play out onscreen was because I knew that this would be how the world ended. If given any finite amount of time, people would become animals. They would revert to their basic instincts and resort to any means to live out their most primal and ill-advised desires. After all, nothing matters any more: jail, disease, pregnancy, bodily harm, privacy or property, or any other type of consequence. Part of me hopes that people are inherently good and full of order. My common sense tells me otherwise.

Dodge's final days begin to take shape when he encounters his neighbor, Penny (Kiera Knightley), crying outside his apartment on the fire escape. "I'm never going to see my family again," she sobs. He comforts her and offers to let her inside. "I won't steal anything if you don't rape me," she offers. He agrees. The two talk. Dodge tells her of Olivia, the high school sweetheart who got away. She falls asleep on his couch to football on the TV. They part ways the next morning, until rioting in the streets bleeds into their apartment building. Rocks are thrown, flames are lit, guns are fired, and Dodge wakes Penny. They race to her car. Dodge is determined to find Olivia. "If you drive me to where I need to go, I can get you to your family," he promises. Now it's Penny's turn. "Deal."

The beautiful Kiera Knightley plays Penny
The apocalypse is an incredibly common topic in film. Action-based disaster flicks like Roland Emmerich's sci-fi based 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, as well as Michael Bay's Armageddon, hardly examine the seriousness of humanity's end, rather sidestepping serious issues to focus on thrills and ultimately putting the big, untimely end aside. Darker, deeper films like Lars von Trier's Melancholia use the end of the world to examine issues like depression. What sets Seeking a Friend for the End of the World apart is its grounded nature. In a field populated by other movies that are in turns epic, emotional, and symbolic, this movie is incredibly personal and charismatic. Totally unpretentious and without any preconceived audience, it's a movie that tries to accomplish the most admirable goal of any art: appeal to, entertain, and inspire anyone who cares to listen.

The movie's dark humor is fulfilling, but never distracts from its grave subject matter. Much of this is accomplished by Carell, who is perfectly at home in the often deadpan laughs. As Dodge, he finds the perfect balance of drama and laughs by playing a likable guy immersed in external and internal chaos. Dodge got married to avoid dying alone, which under the circumstances, is rather ironic. He sells insurance because he likes "having a safety net." He's comfortable with the fact that he's not a risk-taker, but what he's uncomfortable with is that he never risked his heart. His reactions to the crazy events occurring around him are funny because they're believable.

In contrast, Penny is impulsive, but is also left empty by the risks she has taken. She's put her heart on the line too many times, and is determined that she will never find true love. Whether she and Dodge get together is not the question. The question is this: if they do become involved, how will it affect each of them? Scafaria doesn't develop Dodge and Penny as a pair of characters, whether it be as friends or a romantic couple. She draws them both individually, with quirky traits, flaws, and bruises. The two are intensely sympathetic, and as they grow on their journey together, we in the audience are able to glimpse it in every change of expression. Both characters are brought to life subtly in both the writing and the acting.

There's a brilliant moment where Knightley's physical acting speaks volumes, more than any dialogue could. Penny and Dodge finally arrive at Olivia's previous residence, and are looking for any evidence to track her. After hours of searching the house, they have found nothing. Dodge sleeps while Penny makes dinner. They eat the meal quietly in the dim light, carrying on a charming conversation about vinyl records, Penny's passion. Dodge doesn't just talk with her, he listens to her. He cares not only about what she's saying, but how she says it, and how she feels. Their connection is magical. Penny returns to the kitchen for a moment and opens a drawer. She lifts a sheet of paper out of it. Though the audience is soon informed of what the paper contains (a current address for Olivia), we really don't need to be. The confused and crestfallen look on Knightley's heavenly face tells us everything we need to know about the emotions surging through Penny's heart.

There are comic and happy moments on their journey. One is when Penny and Dodge happen upon a Friendsy's pub, where the customers and staff are apparently unfettered by society's mounting chaos. If anything, the tragic news has made them friendlier. An uninhibited waitress caresses Penny's hair, kisses both her and Dodge, and leads the rest of the staff on a crazy, marijuana-fueled conga line. Dodge smiles for the first time since the doomsday news. Penny tells the staff that it's his birthday. They go nuts with cake, singing, and kissing. Other moments are harder to watch. Penny finally makes contact with her family over a land line phone (all cellular devices are dead), and she sobs into the receiver upon hearing her baby niece for the first time. Dodge tells Penny how he has no family to spend his final days with. She believes she's ruined his life, and he cradles her in his arms.

The quiet moments of human truth will remain in the mind and heart after Seeking a Friend for the End of the World ends. Dodge's maid, a lively Hispanic woman, cannot fathom not coming to work. The final week of human existence arrives. He tells her to spend the time with her family, but she doesn't understand. She leaves him with a smile. "See you next Tuesday, Mr. Dodge," she assures, after informing him he requires more window cleaner. On their way to their destination, Dodge and Penny happen upon a group of wanderers on a beach. The two travelers stop and join their ranks. Waves crash on the shore, and toddlers play in the sand. Dodge teaches Penny harmonica, and they laugh as if it were any normal weekend. The script affords brutal honesty to the audience but also immense respect. When the end comes, it is handled delicately and with great tenderness, but no less emotion.

Grim reality and darkness simmers beneath all of the action of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but instead of inhibiting the movie's ability to entertain, it makes it all the more poignant. This movie is one with a conscience, and an indomitable spirit. It's a personal fable about life, death, and love. It doesn't look away from the harsh realities of humanity, but it revels in the beauty of existence. The world could end at any moment, and whether we are given a doomsday forecast or not, each and every one of us is facing a finite existence. We all have choices to make. In both laughter and tears, we have each other. We have hope to change, no matter how late it may seem.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is rated R by the MPAA for language including sexual references, some drug use, and brief violence. Most of the difficult subject matter is presented in the beginning of the movie. Though nothing graphic is ever shown, the mature thematic material in the movie is highly emotional and affecting. Drug use is the most prevalent of the above, with onscreen marijuana, heroin, and alcohol use, and abuse of medication, shown onscreen. This is a stellar movie, but it was made for adults and will be best appreciated by them.

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