Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a sweet, inoffensive but ultimately awkward film with unmet aspirations of indie darling-hood. It’s a film that touches on a number of potentially interesting themes about its doomsday setting, but that never focuses convincingly in on any, and certainly never reaches a satisfying rhythm. The problem here is quite simple: this end of the world drama – come comedy – come rom-com, lacks a clear intention, it decides it actually wants to be a romantic comedy too late toward the end of the second act and suffers deeply as a result of it’s indecision.
Things should be simple enough; Steve Carell plays apocalyptically glum everyman Dodge. Who, in the opening moments of the film, learns that life on Earth will be completely extinguished in just three short weeks. A bleak opener, quickly and comically overturned when Dodge’s wife opens the door of their parked family sedan and promptly sprints off into the distance, never to be seen again.
The result is an acutely observed and genuinely humorous final hours gag. One that sets a strong precedent for a direction the film could, and arguably should, have headed in. Indeed the first act of the film is punchily amusing, as otherwise dour, unrelatable man-ghost dodge is pushed to one side in favour of some strong last-stand absurdist comedy.
In one early scene Dodge visits friends who are celebrating the coming death by asteroid business with a night of hedonistic abandon. Children are made to gulp down alcohol by partying parents, the middle aged cut loose and an arrival of heroin is met with all round applause, indeed the whole thing gets off to a great start.
It’s telling then that whilst we and the film are having fun, Dodge sits glumly off to one side in the corner. The issues arise when Dodge, and by extent the film, decide that we should actually concern ourselves with something more serious and constructive in the time remaining.
Enter Penny, a poorly executed, quirky girl next-door clone, turned out with minimal effort from Keira Knightley. She lives next door; she’s wild fun and care free in opposition to his abject hollowness. She’s not Zooey Deschanel however. Knightley struggles to find a convincing space as the weed smoking, serial monogamist, Londoner living abroad Penny and Carell’s competent character work struggles with nothing to bounce off. Indeed, the effect is so awkward that Dodge often seems marginally lonelier when she’s around.
Knightley’s not all to blame however, as the script treats Penny as little more than convenient companion fluff. Towards then end of proceedings when Dodge is reunited with his estranged father Frank, played by Martin Sheen, Penny/Knightley is quickly shooed off screen so that Carell and Sheen can do some proper grown up acting. Unfortunately however, this otherwise stand out scene is immediately undercut by a silly all smiles and no sound montage that dispels any gravitas won.
Really the first act of the film feels like a road movie in which two disinteresting characters visit other, more exciting movies set in the same universe. Each of these vignettes sees ‘dull and duller’ stumble upon groups of far more engaging and charming characters who are each dealing with the coming end in their own way.
These scenes are a nice reprieve, but eventually get discarded to give way to a bland and forgettable romantic comedy that doesn’t take full advantage of it’s doomsday context. Once it finally decides to go somewhere, it’s unfortunately nowhere special.
Disorganised, occasionally fun but mostly indulgent, this drama takes time to find traction then refuses to end. No real chemistry between the leads also mean it’s hard to recommend as a satisfying date movie. In fact, the inevitable match up between bleak old man and giddy young girl feels pointedly creepy, making the final moments doubly apocalyptic.
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