'Seeking a Friend': Sweet, Comedic Armageddon
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," the writer-director builds a comedy spun from one of the more reliable and sensationalist plots on file, as the world is slated to be destroyed in four weeks by a 70-mile-wide asteroid. This film isn't about the last-ditch missions to save us all or the shouting and strategizing done by those in power; instead, we're with Dodge (Steve Carell), who would like to have a little peace and quiet before the end and maybe, just maybe, track down his high school sweetheart.
Scafaria's previous writing credit is the adaptation of the novel "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," which featured two young lovers at play in Manhattan. In her directorial debut, she similarly unites Carell's sad-sack Dodge with Keira Knightley's Penny, clad in Converse sneaks and toting a handful of can't-live-without-them vinyl gems. Dodge wants help getting to his long-lost love, which Penny offers to provide; Penny, whose family is in England, needs access to a plane, which Dodge has.
While Scafaria's film pretty much follows Dodge and Penny in their quest -- not to thwart the end, but, rather, to enjoy it as best they might -- it also has an excellent supporting cast. Nancy Carell gets a nice scene as Dodge's wife; T. J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs shine as the too-friendly staff of what feels like the T.G.I. Fridays of the Titanic; Rob Corddry, Connie Britton and Patton Oswalt make a party scene sting with laughter. There are other performances, and performers, in the film too perfectly pitched and well-presented to spoil, so I won't digress, but it should be noted that Scafaria's skill here is not only in getting a wide pool of talented people to be in the film, but also in actually giving them something to do.
There have been gentle apocalypses before, to be sure, like 1985's lyrical "The Quiet Earth," the excellent "Last Night" (a 1998 film I love so much I had to work to get past my initial knee-jerk unfounded resentment over this film's seeming resemblance to it) and many more. While "Seeking a Friend" doesn't break any new ground, it does cover familiar pop-culture territory with grace and style, and having Carell in the lead helps inestimably. Much like in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Carell here has the air of a grown-up version of Charlie Brown, still slowly trudging to try to kick the football despite all the times life, or Lucy, or both, snatched it away from him at the final moment. Knightley, liberated from costume drama in a welcome change, delivers vital and strong work as well.
Much here is in a bittersweet and quieter key: At one point, a female partygoer smiles sadly about her mismatched mélange of outfit pieces: "It's everything I never wore." And Scafaria's careful understanding of a delicate tone, especially in a directorial debut, is impressive. As the apocalypse approaches, what would it do to our behavior? To society? Would it descend into madness, or would it seem more insane the more it resembled our day-to-day world before the bad news? All of this is fodder for the film's jokes, gags and slow-burn punch lines, and the cast and crew find some pathos and earned sentiment and feeling between those funny bits as well. "Seeking a Friend" should best be viewed as a neurotic spin on "Deep Impact," or as "Armageddon" reconfigured as an urban rom-com. If its laughs are more gentle than go-for-broke, or if you're left wondering what a more experienced director could have done with the film's ideas visually, or you also feel like Carell and Knightley spark but never catch fire, well, it's not like it's the end of the world.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.