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

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World marks Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut following her well-received screenplay of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. There is definitely a feeling of new territory being paved when watching this particular apocalyptic dramedy, and this can only come from a director who doesn’t mind taking risks or making a bold statement as a means of introduction. Not everything is a surefire hit in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but there are enough colorful and fruitful moments that will have you nodding your head in approval with regards to Scafaria’s recent filmmaker status. Despite two leads who are potentially very miscast, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had in this film if you chuck aside your expectations for an apocalyptic movie and just enjoy the carefree nature that surrounds a topic that doesn’t seem humor-filled, but somehow is.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins right as it’s being announced that the world is coming to an end. The latest mission to destroy the incoming asteroid of doom has failed, and anarchy is soon to be on the rise! Following this melancholic news update, the wife of our leading man Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) runs out of the car they are in and flees from her marriage forever. That finality of choice echoes the sentiments of Earth’s inhabitants, and unfortunately that means Dodge will spend his last remaining days on earth completely and utterly alone. Carell is often known for his geekishly awkward humor, but this time around he is more peevish and pitiful — that’s a compliment, by the way. Carell espouses forth a performance that is somber, moody, and slightly clinical. Not once does Carell ever elicit a laugh from the audience, and that is refreshing considering our awareness of his comedic capabilities. He is stoned-faced and depressed right from the get go, and in this sense I suppose Carell is a decent casting choice. It demonstrates that — like his heavy-toned roles in films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Dan In the Real Life — Carell can easily muster through an intensively serious role without a hint of humor crawling at the seams. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn’t better or worse for having Carell cast as the lead, but he does solid work nonetheless.

As the riots on the street start coming closer to the suburbs, Dodge meets Penny (Keira Knightley), a weepy twenty-something who is drenched in guilt for not visiting her parents in England one last time. The two have been neighbors for quite awhile, but never ran into each other nor met. Their meeting is awkwardly pleasant to watch, but I never got a strong sense of romantic chemistry between the two. Usually when a film wishes to establish a tight-knit romance between its two leads, there’s some magical spark that occurs upon their initial meeting, but I never witnessed it. It’s great to see Keira Knightley play young for a change. In most of her roles, the maturity that Knightley establishes so quickly supersedes any notion that she’s a young woman, so it was a nice shift to see her melt into the immature wiles of youth. Penny is slightly rebellious, brainy, and a hopeless romantic. Her zest for deriving the most out of life’s most rewarding pleasures comforts funereal Dodge. She lights a match in him of hope and self-worth that he wishes to carry forward on his latest journey: finding his childhood sweetheart Olivia, who recently wrote him a letter that admits her undying love for him. Dodge yearns to reciprocate those same feelings in person, and he and Penny escape their anarchically-driven town together to accomplish their final goals before the world is destroyed forever.

It’s just a shame Dodge and Penny left behind some hilarious and well-written characters. Connie Britton unearths her hidden comedic talents in this film — she plays a raunchy, drug-loving woman named Diane. Diane and her husband are good friends of Dodge’s, but with the world coming to an end, Diane enjoys pushing the boundaries of human social behavior. She is up for a heroine round table, a good old-fashioned adult orgy, and the occasional husband/boyfriend swap. Britton, an actress whom I believe to be incredibly undervalued by the masses, chomps up her scenes like a ravenous crow. She’s so good as Diane that you almost feel a sense of anger that her role is so small in the film. Adam Brody also turns in a memorable five-minute performance as Penny’s ex-boyfriend, Owen. He is neurotic and self-absorbed, but through it all you cannot help but admire the passion and over-the-top spirit that Brody brings to this role. Like Diane, I would have loved his character to be showcased more in the film than was allotted.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World turns into a kind of road-trip film during the middle act. I admired the sense of adventure our two leads carry forth with them on their travels, but more than anything I absolutely relished the scene where they stop at a local bar & grille. This particular establishment has the single best name of any bar in any form of fiction: “Friendsys.” At this place, everyone is your friend! They give you high-fives, slap your ass, provide free mudslides, and envelop you in giant bear hugs. What more you could possibly desire when the end of days is near? Gillian Jacobs and T.J. Miller deliver two of the best comedic performances of 2012 thus far, and they only need less than five minutes to do so! Miller’s chipper spirit is charming and a total contrast to the dark days that surround the film’s narrative. Gillian Jacobs, why aren’t you a breakout movie star yet? I’m not sure if Scafaria is an unabashed Community fan, but let me personally thank her right now for casting Gillian Jacobs in this film. Jacobs, wide-eyed and irresistible, takes waitress duties to a whole new realm. She’s frisky, hyper, and as Austin Powers would say, “Raannnddyyy baby!” If you tell her it’s your birthday, she’ll give you so much more than a Marilyn Monroe presidential serenade. Truly, Gillian Jacobs is a keeper, and I cross my fingers that she becomes the next leading comedic actress in Hollywood.

The final half of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is where the most problems lie. Aside from incredible bit-part performances from Martin Sheen and Derek Luke, Dodge and Penny turn cloyingly sanguine when a romance begins to blossom. I have a real problem with this sudden transition of feelings that derides the captivating journey, contradicting the title of the film where “friend” not “lover” should be what matters most. Without spoiling too much, I never once was convinced of the romantic chemistry between Knightley and Carell. They work better as a platonic tag-team than genuine lovers, but low and behold the third act tries to churn forth a sweeping romance in the same vein as Gone with the Wind and Titanic. Whether it succeeds in doing so, you’ll have to make up your own mind there. The worst offense was the dreadfully predictable ending, but thank god for the incredible characters that were littered throughout the film that had me howling in laughter. It’s rather odd admitting that the minor characters engaged me far more than our doomed protagonists, but I believe it’s because the writing in the final half of the film lacks a bit of originality. The turns the plot makes don’t seem particularly well-organized — they kind of just fall into your lap unexpectedly. Even with all my gripes over Knightley and Carell’s lack of genuine chemistry and the disappointing final act, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a genuinely entertaining thrill ride that holds your attention without a glimpse of boredom in sight. This movie has one of the best all-star casts in quite awhile, with small performances that seem larger than the echoing personalities of Knightley and Carell, if that’s possible. As a directorial debut, I rather enjoyed Scafaria’s contribution to the world of cinema. I just ask that her next film take its time with the transition of feelings between its leading characters. The changes of mood and sentiment are a bit jarring and unexpected, but Scafaria seems like someone who will read the mixed feedback that this film is receiving, and work on scripting areas that need improvement for next time. Lorene Scafaria has a lot of talent, and I look forward to seeing what else she’ll be offering us in the future.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World releases nationwide on June 22nd, 2012.