I had to keep reminding myself during the screening of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World that the film was written and directed by a woman. I say that because though it is a very clever comedy it covers the already well-traveled ground of male-created films like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer starring young, free-spirited girls who find a way to the heart of an uptight male. More talented writers than I have already commented on this Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the type of cutsey, indie-hip, but damaged girl who seems to solely exist to fulfill men’s fantasies and, as such, only exist in the movies. Adding to that in Seeking is the dream of every middle-aged single male to have a hot piece of twenty-something ass fall right on his lap instead of all those forty-something divorcees his married friends keep setting him up with. In fact, it’s the type of situation that most women roll their eyes (“She’s young enough to be his daughter!”) while the man’s male friends agree with their wives while secretly envying him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn’t a bad movie. It is, after all, a quirky fantasy, so there’s no reason for the filmmakers to not push the story into all kinds of unbelievable territory. After all, only in a fantasy film could the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Penny, played by Keira Knightley, fall in love with the dour character played by Steve Carell, Dodge. It seems to suggest that all it takes for two people to fall in love is to spend a lot of time together in high stress situations. If that’s the case, I should be married to all my co-workers.
In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dodge and the rest of the world are informed that an asteroid is set to hit the earth and destroy it, and with all attempts at destroying the asteroid failing the world will end in three weeks. Cleverly, the film brings up some interesting, and very funny, questions about this situation: how would our 24-hour news cycle handle the “Countdown to Armageddon” coverage? Would people break their everyday routines, such as doing laundry? Should people stop going to work? Should police officers still enforce laws? Would people just give into all the inhibitions, or find religion? Dodge — whose wife abandons him moments after the announcement of doom comes — at first goes about his life as usual at his job as an insurance salesman while wallowing over all the regrets he has in his life, until the young woman who lives in the apartment downstairs from him, Penny, enters his life. With Penny he decides to spend his final days hunting down his high school sweetheart, but the relationship between the two begins to grow to unexpected levels.
The film is at its best with its numerous clever bits about how humanity would cope with the world ending. In particular, a party scene featuring comedians Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt is the movie’s high point in comedy, particularly Oswalt’s character’s funny exchange about being able to get any girl he wants because the approaching end of the world has leveled the playing field and removed inhibitions. But though the movie breezes by in its 94 minutes, that funny film ends around minute 50 — Corddry and Oswalt are only in that one scene — and we’re left with a romantic film that’s not only unexpected but not particularly warranted as Dodge’s mission to find his high school sweetheart is literally written off.
Where the film falters most is in this “didn’t we see this before?” area. Carell is playing the same glum character with the detatched look in his eyes that he plays in Dan in Real Life and especially Crazy, Stupid Love, while Keira Knightley is essentially a carbon copy of Natalie Portman‘s Garden State character, down to the same type of heavy green jacket, Converse sneakers, and the obsession with her record collection. The scenes between them are sweet at best but often awkward, and there’s honestly no chemistry to speak of between them. One of the reasons why the similar middle-aged male and young female relationship works in a movie like Lost in Translation is that the type of relationship between the two characters defies a label because it isn’t built to be strictly a romantic one — it is a momentary relationship that nonetheless has many levels of intimacy. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World would have likely worked much better had the characters been re-written to be closer in age, because as it is it seems they only begin to fall for each other because they happen to be stuck together.
Writer/director Lorene Scafaria also wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, another sweet romantic movie. While not a particularly bad movie, it hasn’t aged well in the four years since its release and probably will be seen as a relic when Ipods are as archaic as 8-tracks. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a better film with a far more interesting premise, but like Nick and Norah it reaches too far into trying to be sugary sweet and I almost felt like I needed to visit the dentist after seeing it. Carell might be perfect for this sort of role, and Knightley is more than capable of pulling off such a cliche character, but that doesn’t mean the pairing of the two was meant to be.
Note: You can add Seeking a Friend for the End of the World to the list of films that have scenes set in New York City but were obviously not filmed in New York City. I know it wouldn’t make sense to move production to New York to film a handful of scenes, but can’t Hollywood try a little harder making “New York” look like New York?
Rating: More humor and less romance would’ve made a better film all around (5/10).