Sunday, July 1, 2012
Seeking a Better Movie for this Concept (or go rent Joe Versus The Volcano)
Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Reviewed: 30 June 2012
Shame on the director. A promising concept of imminent apocalypse which could be mined for great humor and pathos results in a messy road trip romance film with either miscast lead actors or just severe lack of chemistry, a sloppy script, and an avoidance of nearly everything that might make such a scenario interesting, funny, or terrifying.
It's the end of the world as they know it, and everyone does not feel fine. People react differently to the news that the asteroid that will incinerate all is headed towards earth in three weeks, and the final space mission could not deflect it from its path (I guess Bruce Willis and the Armageddon-crew failed). In the inspired opening shot, Dodge (Steve Carell) listens, transfixed and unemotional, to the broadcast on his car radio; Nancy, his wife (played by Carell's real-life wife), opens the door and runs off into the night without saying a word. Dodge slouches towards destruction, returning to his apartment, sticking to his routine. As the asteroid approaches, Dodge's cleaning lady keeps showing up to work, confused by Dodge's attempt to tell her that her services won't be needed. Dodge remains one of the few workers left at his insurance company, answering distressed calls, throwing up into his garbage can, and enduring quasi-hilarious staff meetings of five people where a supervisor asks, "Anyone want to be a CFO?" Dodge fights traffic. Dodge attends apocalyptic parties with his friends who curse at each other and their children, press young children into drinking martinis and shots, do heroin as a bucket list item, and clumsily throw themselves at each other. Nothing seems to wake Dodge out of his torpor.
A jolt arrives when Dodge's unknown neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) cries on the fire escape outside of his apartment, seemingly trapped in a contentious relationship, and struggling because she has missed the last trans-Atlantic flight home to her loving parents in Surrey, England. Dodge's attempt to comfort her results in a hug and an establishment of trust:"I won't rob you if you agree not to rape me," offers Penny, and Dodge agrees. As it turns out, she has been collecting his mail and has a letter from the woman who got away, his high school love; her hoarding of his mail has resulted in him not getting the letter which seems to intimate that there is a possibility of reconnection. Anarchy erupts on their street below, and as Dodge and Penny escape on a road trip, he agrees to find her a flight home to die with her family if she helps him find his lost love (I guess because she has the car?). Seeking a Friend for the End of the World then turns into a road trip movie, complete with cameos from recognizable actors and scenarios increasingly nonsensical, annoying, and ultimately, sloppy: hitchhiking moment in a truck, burial scene, obligatory pit stop for food scene, as well as visits to various homes that are in pretty good shape with lots of electricity, gas, and wine. The inevitable happens between Dodge and Penny, and their relationship is depicted in harmonica playing and in the montage of shots on a beach, holding each other, talking but who knows what they are saying! And the plot rumbles on, and the countdown to the destruction of life ticks down.
My problems with this film are myriad. It squanders two excellent actors (as well as a supporting cast of note) by giving them very little to do. Knightley is especially egregious as I found her performance as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term coined by AV Club writer Nathan Rabin to describe this particular archetype) increasingly annoying and unlikable. But, let's not give Steve Carell a pass, who seems to have taken his career and tried to turn it into latter-day Bill Murray with less is more, somnolent, increasingly depressing performances. His arc is even more frustrating, and his performance is ultimately a misfire. The screenplay is wildly inconsistent with titanic rifts between characters healed in less than two minutes of screen time as well as unexplained plot points and cliched dialogue. The streets that they travel (New Jersey by way of California? Camden has never looked this nice!) are remarkably unlittered and free of looters or those without cars who would want to take their car. And this film is just free of people. Where are all the people? Is everyone at the beach? Does everyone has access to underground bunkers? Are churches overflowing? What is the government's position? Where is the president? Too many questions like these are not even considered in this film.
There is promise in exploring the idea of how do people confront the end of days as it is an exploration of a life's unfulfilled promises, regrets, and bucket lists. There is promise in the idea of someone without anyone negotiating companionship at the very end. There is promise in the idea that some people will try heroin, push children to drink, explore previously unsaid sexual attractions, as well as loot and destroy at will. However, instead of pushing to explore the psychology of survivors (including a slightly menacing sequence with Penny's ex-boyfriend Speck (Derek Luke) who lives in an underground bunker prepared for the worst, hoping that she will be one of the select females that his group uses to repopulate the earth, a Dr. Strangelovian moment that I wish the film had been dark enough to explore), the film instead withdraws from controversy and deflates into a cliched romance between two ultimately unlikeable people.
Exploring why some people will cling to routine even in the face of imminent disaster is interesting. Exploring why some people abandon dogs by tying their leashes to the legs of strangers passed out in the park is interesting. Exploring why some people turn to or away from faith is interesting. This film is not interesting. I think Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a better television show or miniseries with episodes that are more fully sketched out which allow the characters to develop and percolate than it is as a film. Maybe it needed more time with scenarios and its ideas. I wonder if apocalyptic television shows like The Walking Dead, novels like The Road, and even the Young Adult novel Life As We Knew It have inured me against the whimsical charms of a romance at the end of days because they have me considering marauding packs of criminals, food shortages, and general lawlessness instead of traffic-free streets, electricity, and safety.
No, that's not it. I do not think that this concept is flawed (though the title, as friend Natalie L. pointed out, seems a bit misleading). I think I just reject the central conceit of this film (Dodge's pursuit of the one that got away) when ultimately the director mishandles that by first, not letting us see the contents of the actual letter that drives the action, and second, building the film around that character arc and refusing to give any sort of the payoff included in the confines of that architecture. The one that got away is given short shrift and then cast off mercilessly as a plot point late in the film. Put simply, it is a betrayal. It is clear that the film was made on a lighter budget because there are no memorable settings or shots, but the lack of any sort of consistent tone is inexcusable. We are supposed to laugh at the employees of a restaurant as well as the behavior of a policeman, but neither is truly that funny or well-written. Indeed, the funniest scene in the movie occurs when Cop #2 (Jim O'Heire, Jerry from Parks and Recreation) spills a cup of coffee while realizing why Dodge and Penny have been arrested by a rogue officer. Why wasn't that actor in the movie more? Early on, a jarring tone is established by a suicidal coworker of Dodge's and the vague riot, as well as some transgressive humor through friend Roache (the talented Patton Oswalt, crashing his cameo into the ground with one joke that gets less funny the more he repeats it) and potential lover Diane (the underused and charming Connie Britton). There are lines written and delivered by characters and the one television reporter still on the air (Mark Moses from Mad Men) that are meant to feel ironic or nihilistic with so little time left in the world, but most of them are chuckle-worthy at best, and at worst, take me out of the film, causing me to wonder why someone would say that with a straight face at this time. Why is the reporter still broadcasting? Does he feel some responsibility? Where is his family? What is his story?
I wish that director Lorene Scafaria had committed to a darker or funnier vision for this film, one of anarchic moments and unconventional pairings of characters and philosophies. Is it wrong to expect someone in a film about the end of the world to consider (even if it is to ultimately ignore or reject) faith? It is it wrong to consider that some people will use the remaining days to destroy and take whatever they want? (Case in point: the scene in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion where Matt Damon's character watches thieves break into his neighbor's house is infinitely more chilling and real than anything in this film.) Is it wrong to want either character, Dodge or Penny, to exist beyond the confines of a screenplay? Instead, there's a sappy, cliched film that cheats its audience out of potentially rich and moving scenarios and an adult exploration of how people would approach their imminent destruction. He's dodging life, and she's his lucky penny? Really?
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might have been a better movie if it focused on the dog tied to Dodge's leg. For my money, I'd rent Joe Verus The Volcano with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for a similarly themed, but much more well-executed, moving, and funny story about the end of one man's world. Dodge this one.