I have seen the Earth destroyed in so many different ways—asteroids, storms, zombie plagues, giant monsters—that a film such as Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking A Friend For the End of the World is something of a relief. There’s no apocalyptic destruction here, only the precursor to what appears to be a certain end to life as we know it. No big bang, only people scrambling to finish their lives on their own terms before time’s up. This isn’t the romantic comedy the trailers promised you, but something a bit more bittersweet and thoughtful, not altogether satisfying but earnest all the same. It’s smarter than your average rom-com and disaster movie combined and it sports strong performances from Steve Carell and Kiera Knightley as two people who are discovering each other just days before a cataclysm.
Carell’s Dodge is not having a great week. At about the same time he’s learned that an enormous asteroid named Matilda will collide with Earth (in a cheeky jab at Armageddon, it’s mentioned that the oil-drilling team failed) his wife (Nancy Carell) leaves him to hook up with a lover she’d been seeing on the side. Not unlike the schlubs of Crazy Stupid Love or Little Miss Sunshine, Dodge mopes around and bemoans his lot in life, maintaining status quo while his soul is screaming inside. He keeps going to his job while those around him start doing massive quantities of drugs, conducting bacchanalian orgies, and committing suicide.
One day after his own failed attempt at annihilation (guzzling window cleaner), Dodge meets Penny, his daffy neighbor. She’s a wild card who’s distressed over the fact she missed the last plane to the UK to be with her family, and reveals she’s been taking Dodge’s mail for quite some time. She returns to him a letter from his first love, written before Earth got its termination date. Turns out, Olivia—the one who got away—still cares for him, and is no longer married either. Penny and Dodge make a deal with one another when the riots start to break out. If she helps him find Olivia, he’ll take her to someone who can get her back home to her family before impact.
This is the start of an odd road trip that forms the best passages of Seeking because it focuses on the varied and individual responses people have to the knowledge that their last days are nigh. This could have been a schmaltzy tear-jerker or a grim slog, but Scafaria keeps things sweet and poignant, if not exactly light and airy. The tricky question of whether the writers will find a way to spare the world or be fearless enough to end it doesn’t much trouble this section. Watching Dodge and Penny interact with others scrabbling to squeeze the last bits out of life is the heart of the film. Among those fellow travelers, I was most moved and amused by William Petersen’s Trucker, who has put out a hit on himself so his death can still hold surprise, the wait staff at Friendsys who have re-molded their work into a crazed (or frenzied?) attempt to show ‘love’ to everyone, and a congregation on the beach who appear to be getting married and baptized in great numbers, on and on until the water is replaced with fire.
Carell is as good here as he was in Sunshine, channeling an inner depth of melancholy that works for the role and Knightley shines as the spunky Penny who is more clueless and less together than she’s letting on. The rest of the cast come and go in regular intervals, some having more success than others. I didn’t much care for Rob Corrdry and Patton Oswald as Dodge’s friends who plan to party like its 1999. Their schtick wears off fast and watching Corrdry give his children hard liquor isn’t as funny as it sounds, which wasn’t much to begin with. But out there on the road, the characters are more convincing and entertaining. Adam Brody is Penny’s survivalist ex-boyfriend, not afraid to use his girlfriend as a shield or spend potential years holed up in a bunker with six other dudes. Martin Sheen, who shows up later as someone close to Dodge, is also refreshing in the honest way he portrays a man trying to heal years of pain in a matter of hours.
The real problem with Seeking is that Scarfaria isn’t really certain how to bring the divergent tones together in a way that would really be meaningful or satisfying. She wheels from one emotion to another, plowing through intriguing scenarios and trying to keep Carell and Knightley at the center while ignoring that looming question; Can there be a happy ending for these two without cheating? I was surprised by the fact that the film doesn’t flinch and make the wrong call, and it achieves the most hopeful closure possible given the circumstances.
As such, Seeking is fitfully satisfying and more than a little frustrating. How could it be otherwise? It’s not a film celebrating complacency or fairy-tale comforts. It is about that moment that will come to any of us who receive foreknowledge of our own end. What do you do with the time that is left? How can the remainder justify the time already spent? If all of this was so vital, why must we wait until the guaranteed finale to finally cherish it as precious? Slight and sometimes clumsy in its pacing, Seeking still gives us that gift of contemplation to take with us out of the theater. The central gist of its questions will haunt you days later.