There’s a one-two punch of riskiness in Lorene Scafaria’s (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) latest comedy, not only for its dark source of humour, but the unconventional pairing of comic force majeure Steve Carrel and the relatively untested source of laughs, Keira Knightley. Though it certainly could have pushed harder and prised more honesty out of its apocalyptic scenario, the warm, humanistic story and smart psychology makes it an entertaining jaunt nonetheless.
Dodge (Carrel) is sitting in his car with his wife when the news breaks that a mission to destroy a massive asteroid heading towards Earth has failed, and humanity will consequently be wiped out in three weeks. His wife leaves the car and Dodge’s life immediately, leaving him to pick up the pieces and decide what to do with his remaining time. He meets neighbour Penny (Knightey) sitting distraught on the fire escape, after an argument with her boyfriend (Adam Brody) and realising that she has missed the final plane that would allow her to see her family. Together, they decide to track down Dodge’s first love – who has written him a letter wishing to see him again – with his promise that he can find a way for Penny to see her family again.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is at its most honest and hilarious in those early stages, surrendering to the brutal honesty that an apocalyptic prognosis would likely send most of us back to a primeval state. Drug use runs rampant, people feed their children alcohol, and promiscuity is at an all-time high; there is no need to care about body types, sexual disease and health in general – people are simply trying to soak in as many enjoyable experiences as they can before the end comes. It’s funny because in all probability it is truer than most of us would care to admit, yet Dodge, perhaps the exact opposite of an everyman, seems among the few not to capitulate.
Once meeting Penny, the picture transitions into a sweet-natured road film, coasting on the agreeable banter between the two, if eschewing its more ripe fatalistic humour as a result. There are several occasions at which it might have been advisable for Dodge and Penny to quit their journey and settle – such as a scarily friendly, but seemingly fun restaurant which remains open – yet they continue on, and this might be the hardest part to take of all. It is difficult to relate to Carrel’s quest, but then, how can we ever relate to this scenario entire?
The flipside is that this allows for an inevitable romance between Dodge and Penny that is truncated and yet still wholly believable. The very nature of their meeting with so little time, and their desperation to find someone to share their final moments with, makes the contrived nature of its composition something that actually benefits the characterisation as a whole. After all, who wants to die alone?
By half-way, the more outrageous, near-cartoonish indulgence in flagrant immorality gives way more to drama and romance, and while the somewhat incongruous pairing of Carrel and Knightley is surprisingly effective, something more toothed and acerbic might have made this a dark comedy classic. The criminal misuse of Rob Corddry – pushing him into one small, if hilarious scene – stands out particularly, though on the hole it picks its battles well, focusing on a more homogeneous, optimistic view of humanity, if not overindulging trite sentiments about life. Rather, there is pragmatism – to make the best of a bad situation, and find small measures of comfort.
Speaking of the ending without ruining it is extremely difficult, so it’ll be left at that. What matters is the journey; it mixes the hilariously honest with a more flowery optimism, sorted through ably by Carrel and, in one of her more diverse outings to date, Knightley. A funnier, deadly ironic ending was surely on the cards, but even without, this is a disarming, largely entertaining smattering of philosophies and worldviews.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is in cinemas now.