Countdown to Extinction: What if Tomorrow Never Comes in Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

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Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley, left), Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell, right), and their new dog (center) on the final trip of their lives.

So December 21st, 2012, has finally arrived, and we’re still alive and well – despite a myriad of (drug-inflicted) doomsday scenarios and predictions. Disaster movies have sprung up like mushrooms in recent years, tackling the question what you would do if you knew your time was short. Think Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster 2012 and countless others.

Anyway, just in case the apocalypse is near and, to use a quote from the Welcome To The Pleasuredome album by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ‘Mine is the last voice you will ever hear,’ let’s proceed with a rather peculiar small-scale film about the topic. Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World could, in fact, be seen as the first of its kind – a romantic science-fiction tragicomedy.

Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) sells insurances and his life is just spiffy. His wife Linda has just freaked out and run away, his job is a total pain in the neck, and as if that wasn’t enough, he and everyone else have only three more weeks to live because an asteroid nears earth. All hell has already broken loose everywhere Dodge looks. Other than a half-hearted attempt to bump himself off by drinking window cleaner, however, he simply waits for the end to come – until his idiosyncratic, hypersomniac, and record-collecting young British neighbor Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley) stumbles into his life.

Ironically, Dodge has to realize that Olivia, his high-school sweetheart and the one woman he never got over, already wanted him back three months earlier but the scatterbrained English girl from downstairs forgot to give him Olivia’s letter. Together, he, Penny, and a stray dog Dodge picks up embark on a rather bizarre odyssey to get her away from her deadbeat boyfriend Owen (Adam Brody) and themselves to their loved ones in time. Getting there, however, is easier said than done, as Murphy’s Law strikes time and again. Something always comes up and Penny manages to put a wrench in his plan more than once along the way.

‘Dude, the sky is falling, and it’s raining pussy.’

The world in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is a pretty depressing place. Telephone lines are no longer working. The final flights have long departed, and not even the TV announcers have anything positive to say anymore. While many people have already died, those left behind stare at the doomsday clock ticking down and either start rioting or engage in reckless orgies. Yet Dodge wants none of that. He doesn’t even truly consider leaving his suburban home until the hell-raisers basically force him to flee and take Penny with him.

Steve Carell has long proven his talent as a comedian in starring roles, be it as abrasive regional manager Michael Scott in the American version of the British TV show The Office or in Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin or Peter Segal’s Get Smart. The actor is more than just a jokester, as he has already shown in the independent production Little Miss Sunshine by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Here, he shines as your slightly cowardly regular Joe. Dodge is an ordinary, lonely loser, stuck in a life he hates, and far removed from the existence he once envisioned, but without having lost his sense of humor.

‘I won’t steal anything if you don’t rape me.’

Steve Carell nails the part. He gives the otherwise awkward Peterson a fragility and depth that turn him into a likable character and makes you wonder why he doesn’t appear in more roles like this one. Who in their right mind wouldn’t empathize with such a person? The same can’t be said about Penny, at least not right from the start. When we first meet her, she annoys the hell out of you. Yes, she is heartbroken, and she sheds tears, but Keira Knightley’s acting performance is totally over-the-top at times, even for such a peculiar character as the young Brit. Her facial expressions make you cringe occasionally.

Later on, during the road trip however, we as the audience also tend to side with her, especially as she and Dodge become closer. It seems to be kismet that the two of them turn into an odd couple, and there may be a method to the madness of Keira Knightley’s approach that we may have overlooked at first. There probably couldn’t have been a weirder pairing for the leading roles in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Yet as Penny correctly remarks at one point, opposites attract each other – and it works like a charm in this movie. We laugh and cry with our two strange antiheroes, the sad and initially fairly anemic insurance agent and the somewhat flamboyant British hippie chick.

‘No, I’m not a survivalist. I’m an optimist.’

Penny’s presence also guarantees a rather nice song selection in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, although the nice cuts already start even before the avid record collector appears for the first time. Fine music tickles our ears from the film’s opening seconds on. The legendary “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys blares out of Dodge’s car stereo as an ironic comment on the action during the opening sequence when the three-week window is announced and Linda runs off.

No track, however, fits the film’s mood better as The Walker Brothers’ erstwhile UK #1 single “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).” We hear it as our male hero prepares for his last night on earth all by himself, after having sent Penny off to her English home on a private airplane, courtesy of his father’s (Martin Sheen). At that point, at latest, we have to realize that all will be over for them soon. There’s no escape, no matter how hard they try.

‘You know, it’s all about who you lay down with when the lights go out.’

Lorene Scafaria does a commendable job in her debut as a feature writer and director. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is essentially two things. First of all, it proposes a fascinating ‘what if’ scenario in the wake of all the doomsday theories predicting that the apocalypse would come to get us soon. Secondly, the film is a boy-meets-girl story, in which two strangers are forced to get along with each other while on a road trip and a surprising romance begins to blossom. The movie certainly benefits from strong onscreen performances. They’re probably its best selling point.

We already knew that Steve Carell could deliver in both funny and more serious roles, but Keira Knightley possesses stronger acting chops as a comedian than assumed. A strong supporting cast consisting of Martin Sheen and such familiar television faces as Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Melanie Lynskey, and Patton Oswald nicely complements the two stars. The latter is hilarious, in particular, when he explains the stunned Dodge how his sex life has taken off since the announcement of the apocalypse at a party.

‘I’m really proud I got to know you.’

That doesn’t mean that Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is flawless; safe to say, it isn’t. The screenplay could probably do with some tightening. Some may also find the final act a little disappointing, because the movie first turns a little soppy, then ends on a rather quiet, anticlimactic note. Yet it offers an intriguing mix of speculative science-fiction and disaster movie (what if we all knew that our lives would be over three weeks from now?) fused with comedy, drama, and romance.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World has a serious tone in general, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain any humor. Former King Of Queens and current Two & A Half Men star Patton Oswald is responsible for some of the film’s finest comic relief, and the episode at the Friendsy’s restaurant is hysterically funny as well. The happy ending, at least in the context of the premise of the story, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it offers a somewhat comforting resolution to what things might look like when the apocalypse is just around the corner.

Not to give away too much, but we’re talking about a movie with romantic elements conceived by an American filmmaker. So our two heroes become a lot more involved with each other than either of them would’ve expected. They can’t prevent the apocalypse, of course, but there definitely could be worse options than spending their final minutes in each other’s company. As the American rock band R.E.M. once sang, ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.’ It’s likely that Dodge and Penny would strongly agree.