Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bad Timing: SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

The astronauts sent to destroy the asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth have failed. Mankind is out of options. The end of the world is scheduled to occur in exactly three weeks. This isn’t the setup for the latest sci-fi spectacle or Melancholia-style rumination on psychological conditions. This is the opening scene of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a darkly comedic, yet surprisingly sweet and warmhearted, little movie. We hear the bad news on a middle-aged couple’s car radio. They’ve pulled off to the side of the road to process the news and as the station goes back to playing oldies, the wife opens the door and runs, leaving her husband now while she still can.

The next day, this man (Steve Carell), lonely and full of regrets, finds it’s easiest to get dressed and head to work. One of the wonderfully realized insights in screenwriter and first-time director Lorene Scafaria’s film is the way the world somehow keeps going with some degree of devotion to normal schedules. The news keeps running on the TV. The cleaning lady still shows up to dust and vacuum. In a half-empty conference room, the man finds the company’s C.E.O. sitting behind a stack of manila folders addressing all those who still feel the need to come into office every weekday. “Feel free to wear your casual Friday clothes any day,” the boss states, making some concessions towards the unusual situation the world is facing. As for all the vacant positions created by those too depressed (or suicidal, or dead) to come into work? In this case, that’s just a personnel problem. “Who wants to be C.F.O?” the boss matter-of-factly inquires.

Scafaria’s film is like the smaller, more intimate side of all those effects-heavy disaster movies. When the world is crumbling (or threatening to crumble) around the characters of 2012 or Deep Impact – mostly scientists, politicians, and the like – what are all the billions of other people doing in reaction to news of their impending doom? In this case, the man meets one of his neighbors for the first time, a kind, if somewhat flighty, woman in her late twenties (Keira Knightley). Together they flee a riot that flares up around their apartment building and make a pact to help the other accomplish their end-of-the-world goals. He wants to find his high school sweetheart, who’s not necessarily the one who got away. “They all got away,” he says. “She was the first.” His neighbor wants to find a plane (airlines have shuttered in the wake of the crisis) that will take her to be with her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews one last time.

They set off on their melancholic serio-comic road trip across a pre-apocalyptic landscape that is an amusing and terrifying picture of a society in a sense of halting chaos and hesitant disarray. Some streets seem perfectly normal. Others have burst open with looting and externalized societal anxieties of various kinds. Carell and Knightley move through this ending world meeting all manner of strange, funny, sad characters reacting in very different ways to the approaching cataclysmic event. There’s a party filled with middle-aged professionals cutting loose with promiscuity, drunkenness, and hard drugs. (“Bucket list!” one partier screams as he rushes to accept an offer of heroin.) There’s a roadside diner that’s still open and mostly pleasant but for the staff’s weirdly affectionate behavior. There’s a trucker with his own twisted way of controlling his upcoming death. There’s a band of survivalists packing a bomb shelter, determined to live. There’s a mass baptism on a picturesque beach. 

After a strong opening, the film grows mushy in the middle as it becomes essentially a series of end-times sketches, but Scafaria gives each episodic beat such a patient consideration and uses them as an opportunity to trot out a recognizable actor or three. These one-scene roles are much fun and cast with the types of performers that can make me smile just by showing up. That’s such a big part of my enjoyment of the movie that I’d hate to list those names. (Even though you could click over to IMDb and figure it out right now, don’t spoil your fun.) All along the way, the film picks up an increasing sadness in the face of the inevitable until it reaches a satisfying conclusion that settled on me like heavy fog. 

No matter what connections these characters make, no matter if their inevitably short-term goals are met, they and everyone else on the planet will die in less than a month. That asteroid is coming and there’s no stopping it. This finality hangs over the film, which nonetheless manages to be amusing and eventually moving in the way it proposes that it’s never too late to make a friend. Carell and Knightley play their roles with such unsettled dissatisfaction and yet such easy warmth and lovability that it’s not a big stretch to imagine that their company alone could, if only for a moment or two, take your mind off of the darkness on the horizon. This is about as dark as comedies can get (with some on-screen deaths and filled with the constant the looming threat of extinction), but because it’s about people who are committed to doing something in the face of the end, there’s some small degree of melancholic hope. If the world were to end tomorrow, would you plant a tree today? These characters would.

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