We live in cynical times and it would be easy to dismiss writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s debut feature, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as just another hokey romantic comedy. But it is far from that. It has depth and passion, and exquisite performances. Steve Carell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman who is still going to work and answering the phone, despite the fact that the TV news has just announced the world is about to end. It appears that gigantic meteor is going to strike Earth, causing a catastrophe, and the imminent destruction of Earth.
When we first meet Dodge, his wife Linda, has run away with a lover that Dodge was unaware of (ironically played by Carell’s real-life wife). Partly suicidal and drowning his sorrows drinking cough medicine, he accidentally comes across a cute neighbor in his apartment building, Penny (Keira Knightley), who’s been accidentally receiving Dodge’s mail for more than a year but has neglected to mention it (because the two of them have never actually met).
But he helps her out (she’s dumping her faithless boyfriend played by Adam Brody) and finds a fateful piece of mail from his high-school girlfriend, the only woman he’s ever really loved, the one that got away. She wrote him before the end was conclusive, hoping to possibly connect, if he’s free.
So Dodge and Penny take off in a car — she, promising to help him track down the old girlfriend; he, promising to help her find a way back to England to see her family before the end hits.
Thus begins a road trip of sorts, a study in connection between two disparate souls who find something within themselves. Some critics have unfairly commented that Carell and Knightley are too odd a pairing for this to be believable, but this is a film about two lost souls who find each other and both actors are so exquisite and emotionally truthful that it is very believable for these two to have found each other.
End of the World is a very impressive directorial debut from Scafaria, an emotionally layered script, beautifully written and nicely directed. The film is tonally unexpected, with moments of dark humor, balanced with a high degree of romantic sentiment, but given its setting, it seems more than appropriate.
Carell is a very visually nuanced actor and here he is perfect as an Everyman figure, soulless and empty, searching for life’s meaning at its very conclusion. But it is Knightley who constantly surprises us with a rich, funny, passionate performance that is textually complex. It is a side of her one rarely sees on screen and she is fabulous. There are other indelible moments from a trucker [beautifully played by William Peterson] who has hired a hitman to kill him before the meteor does, to a beautiful moment between Carell’s Dodge and the father who deserted him [Martin Sheen at his best].
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a beautiful work, that highlights the best in the film’s lead actors but gives us a story about the very essence of humanity, and in these tough times, a film like this is something to be savored.