Sometimes the story matters less than the storyteller.
That was the feeling I got from Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (SFEW), a film by writer/director Lorene Scafaria (who previously wrote Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist). This is definitely a good film. But it’s not flawless, nor did I find it massively affecting. Indeed, as romances go, it’s fairly bog-standard.
Steve Carrell stars as Dodge, the shy kind of romantic lead, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the film. Facing the fact that he has wasted much of his life on a terrible relationship, Carrell slumps into depression. Luckily for him, he has a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Keira Knightley) living on the floor below him. As such kooky individuals are wont to do, it turns out this Penny has been stealing his mail, including a love letter from an old flame. Encouraged by his ridiculously enthusiastic neighbour, Dodge decides to go out on a road trip to meet his long lost beau. Also because he knows a dude with a plane, and the MPDG needs a dude with a plane, he ends up taking her with him, despite the inevitability of wacky hijinks.
So far, so romcom. It’s a standard set up, and the outcome is fairly predictable. But what makes this story distinctive, and piques my interest in Scafaria, is the setting. As you might guess from the title, all is not exactly well. As a helpfully expository newsreader reveals at the start, an unstoppable asteroid is heading for Earth. In three weeks the human race will be destroyed.
It is what Scafaria does with this setting that makes her into one to watch. Mostly, fictionally doomed humanity usually descends into hedonism, barbarism, or both. Scafaria however bucks this trend. Sure there are the riots and the survivalists and the orgies that are the staple of dying Earths. But Scafaria’s take on the apocalypse goes beyond mass desperation. In SFEW some people still come to work because their job matters to them. Some take the chance to engage in their hobbies to a previously impossible degree. Some people remain officious pricks. The detail of this Armageddon is the main strength of SFEW, turning it into a compelling examination of human nature in all its weird variety.
It also makes SFEW funny. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny: more the kind of funny that has you grinning for an entire movie. The humour is nicely varied too. Sometimes it’s raunchy, sometimes it’s fairly black, sometimes it’s just downright crazy. Essentially there is something here for everyone. But the reason it all works is the quality of Carrell’s performance. He pretty much acts as a straight man for the entire Earth, and I really enjoyed watching all the apocalyptic wackiness bounce off this serious, puzzled man.
Ultimately though, SFEW is more promising than it is great. The inescapable problem is that this is a film of two halves: one part thoughtful examination, one part formulaic romantic cheese. Separately both elements work really well, but at times it feels like Scafaria made sacrifices in order to better fit her story into the romcom structure. In particular I felt the ending papered over character motivation in order to craft a more lovey-dovey finale. As such, I left this screening not unmoved, but less moved than I would have liked.
To sum up, I found SFEW entertaining, but leaving only a vague, wispy impression. And yet this is too intelligent a film to be simply dismissed as light entertainment. SFEW then is best remembered, less as an independent story, and more as a stage in the career of a storyteller. It demonstrates that Scafaria’s abilities are not yet fine-tuned. But there is much promise in SFEW, and, with further experience, I feel like I may have witnessed the first major step in an interesting directorial career.
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World – Official Trailer Published via LongTail.tv