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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

June 25, 2012
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Steve Carell is shaping up to be an extraordinarily talented actor, both in his native comedic vein and in more serious — or at least less zany — fare. He may be most widely known for the likes of Evan Almighty, Get Smart or Dinner for Schmucks, but Crazy, Stupid, Love., not to mention Dan in Real Life and Little Miss Sunshine show a much broader range.

But here’s the catch: his latest outing, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World seems from the trailer and other marketing materials to be in the first group — after all, that’s where Carell’s widest audience is — but the actual movie is firmly within the second. The first half makes halting, uneven attempts at crazier comedy, but the second half is where writer/director Lorene Scafaria is clearly more comfortable, and where the film really shines. It’s really not a bad movie at all, but Focus Features doesn’t really seem to know how to sell it on its true strengths.

As you can guess from the title, this is a disaster movie. A seventy-mile wide asteroid dubbed “Matilda” is on a collision course with Earth. Unlike most other disaster movies, we join the action after the team of scruffy, blue-collar heroes has already boarded their rocket to the strains of a rock anthem, and then all died in a fire. There is no ambiguity on this point: in three weeks’ time the asteroid will hit the Earth and the ensuing firestorm will wipe out pretty much everything.

We hurriedly skim through a bunch of different reactions to humanity’s impending doom, mostly looking over the shoulder of Dodge Peterson (Carell), who passes up most of the consequence-free debauchery — “somebody brought heroin”, a dinner-party hostess chirps — in favor of a vodka-and-codeine cocktail, sleepwalking his way to the end.

Dodge meets his downstairs neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who finally returns three years’ worth of misdelivered mail, in which he finds a letter from an old flame. He enlists Penny’s aid in returning to his hometown, telling her he knows of a way she might be able to get back to England to see her parents one last time. And so they set off towards their destiny.

Many of the vignettes seem to work in isolation, but none really has any staying power, and most of them seem more about working in a series of short guest appearances than anything else. The dinner party highlights Patton Oswalt and Rob Corddry; William Petersen is a careworn trucker who offers a lift; a roadside restaurant gives T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs a chance to act wacky. They all serve to explore various reactions to the impending disaster but they’re scattershot and unimpressive for the most part.

But everything really starts to gel in the second half, when the film takes a decidedly bittersweet turn for the better. It’s calmer and far more meaningful, including a powerful appearance by Martin Sheen. By the end, the story has transformed from apocalyptic silliness to a touching meditation on regret and redemption.

Maybe we need to go through the haphazardly silly bits to really get the ending to stick. If the whole film were like the second half it would probably be far too syrupy. But the marketing seems geared to pull in an audience that’s more interested in the first half, which does the whole film a disservice.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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