dir: Lorene Scafaria
If the world was going to literally end, and we knew about it in advance, and we knew exactly when it was going to happen, what would we all do with the time we had left? It’s a compelling what if? of a thought experiment, and usually, in art at least, it’s reserved to “if you were going to die, what stuff would you do finally that you never had the courage to do before?”
This time, though, everyone’s going to die. Every living thing extinguished in a cataclysm that won’t be averted with a couple of seconds to go, apparently, since this is what the film tells us from the opening minutes. A man (Steve Carrell) and his wife (Nancy Carrell) listen blankly as the radio in their car outlines the failure of some last-ditch attempt to avert the disaster. A meteor called Matilda, which is as good a name as any for something fixing to permanently end your present world, continues on its course towards Earth, where it will obliterate all life, perhaps.
The couple sit grimly in the car, until the wife bails, never to return. Why would she? The point the flick makes sometimes bluntly, sometimes eloquently, is that knowing the end is actually nigh would render most of the underpinnings of the social contract utterly null and void. Why be faithful to your husband or wife; the world’s ending in a few weeks, what difference will it make? Why go to work: is money going to stop Matilda? Why not take hard drugs and take part in uncomfortable orgies? Addictions not going to matter, STDs aren’t going to matter, unintended pregnancies aren’t going to matter.
Social conventions, infrastructure, the value of being courteous to each other: all of it falls apart even when the coming apocalypse doesn’t involve zombies, vampires or mutants.
This is a time where the end of things sits heavily on the minds of writers, screenwriters and the hard drives and Kindles et al of a lot of viewers and readers. If there are too many superhero flicks coming out, then there are even more ‘too many’ apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movies that have been coming out for far too long.
In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it’s not used as an excuse for cool head-exploding special effects or fight choreography. It’s solely used as the pretty big trigger for a whole bunch of people, being all of humanity, to start deciding what is and isn’t important to them in these last days.
The profound difference here is that the film doesn’t look at the big picture, instead it concentrates on two people, very different people, who struggle to figure out what matters in the final interim, whether it’s achieving closure with the past, or making the most of the last moments people have left.
Dodge (Carrell), which, I agree, is an awful name for a human being, looks bummed out more than anything. The announcement of humanity’s impending doom prompts his wife to leave him almost immediately, and this is what he’s depressed about more than anything else. His wife has, as far as we know, decided the point of staying with this guy evaporated the second she heard the announcement.
And what’s he got left? Routine, the consoling and comforting embrace of routine. He keeps going to work, keeps doing many, if not all the things he used to do, only he does them in more of a defeated way. Around him people are mostly calm and cheerful, but they’re starting to give up. Knowing that the end is coming and accepting it are very different propositions.
And what does that acceptance entail? This being an American film, you’d make the mistake of assuming, like I did, that everyone would start shooting everyone else pre-emptively. In American disaster flicks, possibly giving voice to the Second Amendment affirming anxiety that underpins society, people go from calm to bug-fuck gun-totting in seconds flat.
Here it takes a bit longer before people start personally tearing at the fabric of society by going all atavistic and feral, but it brings up the great point that people only directly or indirectly support the social contract as long as they see there being a tomorrow in which what we do or don’t do matters. Once ‘tomorrow’ is gone, and any repercussions other than the immediate ones evaporate, finally they can live in the now.
The amusing way they depict this is by showing some people around Dodge going sex and drug crazy. Despite the fact that his wife has just left, and he’s not interested in dating, and that the world is going to end in three weeks, a good mate of his invites him over for a ‘regular’ dinner party, and the mate’s wife (the awesome Connie Britton, or Mrs Coach as fans of Friday Night Lights know her forever more) decides he needs to be set up with someone.
Really? we’re meant to bellow, along with the protagonist, at the screen. Of all the stuff that we could safely abandon in the face of oblivion, the desire of couples to set up their single friends isn’t going to dissipate? And then when that horrifies him, and the dinner crowd start doing heroin for the first time in their lives and indiscriminately fucking, the host comes onto him, saying in a dejected way, that now no-one belongs to anyone anymore, so why not?
This time to reflect prompts Dodge to think about “the one that got away”, the woman he actually loved with all his heart and dick, presumably, before his cowardice pushed her away. This woman Olivia, childhood sweetheart and all, looms large in his mind now, making him wish that things had been different, even if the end would have been the same.
At some point he spies his neighbour (Keira Knightley) who’s lamenting the fact that her deadbeat boyfriend (Adam Brody, who’s a hipster douchebag if I’ve ever seen one, complete with beard!) somehow prevented her from catching the last plane back to England, where she would have been able to spend her last days with the people she cares about the most. By an unfortunate coincidence, she happens to have his mail, accumulated during the months prior to the announcement of impending Matilda. This letter prompts the kind of road trip you always get in post-apocalyptic stories, rarely in the pre-apocalyptic ones.
For this film to work, and it does work, we have to see the people involved, Dodge and Penny, not as pawns either of the script or of circumstance. What happens between them has to seem organic (when, in the face of annihilation, it’s clearly not) and unforced, and the flick manages all these elements in spades. The age difference, the complete difference between them as people and as actors doesn’t detract from the story in the slightest, in fact it adds to it immensely. Keira Knightley is not an actress whose performance I can usually enjoy unless the story around it is particularly strong, but she’s really key to the flick’s success.
Steve Carrell tends to play his comedic roles ‘big’ and his more dramatic roles ‘small’, and this one goes more with the latter than the former. He has some goofy moments, but mostly he plays it quite keenly. He has a fair few moments that are conveyed solely with body language or facial expression, and he does very well with them. He is the main character, and it’s the resolution that he seeks that we’re meant to care about the most, but the balance is right between the two characters.
This is a keenly funny flick, in that there’s a fair amount of humour amidst the upcoming doom. Some viewers might find it entirely inappropriate getting laughs out of the prospect of the extinction of all life on the planet, but these are the same scolds who scolded the rest of us for enjoying Life is Beautiful.
And who wants to live their lives pleasing those jerks? No-one, that’s who.
Really, it works because of the rapport that develops between the two characters as they drive around figuring out what the most important place to be is when the big one hits, and, more importantly, who they should be with when it happens, and why. It feels unforced, and not inevitable, which is a problem these kinds of flicks usually have. There are some quite touching scenes, a great scene towards the ended which moved me to tears with the beautiful way it captured the gentle humanness of a group of people who elected to spend their last days sweetly on a beach, with the ones they love. The kiss shared there between Penny and Dodge was probably one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen on film, in my whole life.
I really enjoyed this film, very much so, and you might too.
8 times I hope I can face the end with as much equanimity and love as these two do out of 10
“I wish we met each other a long time ago. When we were kids.”
- “ It couldn't have happened any other way. It had to happen now.”
“But it isn't enough time—“
- “It never would have been.” – there never is and never will be enough – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World