Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is nowhere near as funny as it has been made to seem, which actually works in its favor. The film is at its best when it veers away from the broad, strained humor prominently featured in the ads, none of which make it clear that only about a third of the final product is being represented. What you’re not being shown is an intelligent and surprisingly moving story of two emotionally damaged people and the healing they receive by being in each other’s lives. Yes, it’s set against the backdrop of an asteroid’s impending collision with Earth, but that doesn’t mean that the film is depressing or nihilistic. If anything, it reaffirms the value of life and instills the belief that the simple act of being kind and making someone happy gives us meaning.
Most of the more overt jokes are reserved for the opening segments, the weakest the film has to offer. During the course of its rather shaky start, we see a man encouraging a four- or five-year-old girl to chug down a martini, Keira Knightley and Adam Brody having a very non-communicative relationship argument as they run away from a rioting mob, a trucker mistaking Knightley and Steve Carell for the assassins he hired to kill him, and a Knightley and Carell having dinner at a restaurant where it seems that everyone, including the very gay maître’d, is on ecstasy. While I do believe the film needed a touch of wit, at no point did it have to be this insistent. The heavy-handed verbal and physical gags are strained and unbecoming, suggesting that writer/director Lorene Scafaria initially had no faith in her own idea.
But then, gradually, the defensive layers peel away, and we see the more compelling story underneath. Carell plays Dodge Petersen, whose wife literally runs away from him after it’s announced on the radio that the mission to destroy a rapidly approaching asteroid with a laser has failed. Being alone for the end of days puts him in a depression the likes of which no hedonistic acts can get him out of. But then he meets his downstairs neighbor, Penny Lockhart (Knightley), a young woman who never quite got her life together and feels incredibly guilty for leaving her family back in Surrey, England. She lost her chance to go back following the complete termination of all commercial flights. A bit spacey, a passionate vinyl album collector, and an astoundingly heavy sleeper, she’s currently in an on again/off again relationship with her boyfriend, Owen (Brody), who truly is clueless.
She and Dodge take those initial steps towards friendship over a picture of Dodge’s high school sweetheart, the girl that got away. Dodge and Penny strike a deal: If she can get help him find his lost love, he can get her to someone that owns a plane and can fly her to her family. The more they travel, the more they reveal themselves. I will not delve into every detail of their pasts; the less you know about them beforehand, the more you will appreciate what they say to each other. I will say that the conversations between Dodge and Penny are a pleasure to listen to because of the humanity Scafaria infuses them with. We hear a mixture of regret, anger, and confusion, but we also hear consolation, understanding, resignation, and yes, even joy. There’s really no way of knowing how you would feel or what you would want to talk about under this particular set of circumstances, but from a purely emotional perspective, this feels right.
There’s a brief subplot involving one of Penny’s ex-boyfriends, a militant survivalist named Speck (Derek Luke), who has a titanium-walled fallout shelter stocked with guns, gas masks, and potato chips. Although his fate remains a mystery, he makes several thought-provoking, if cruel and incredibly unfair, points about the potential continuation of the human species and where Penny fits into that. We’re left to wonder whether or not he truly believes in her ability to survive; it’s quite possible he’s simply trying to win her back before it’s too late. Speck proves to be helpful by lending Penny and Dodge one of his fuel efficient cars, enabling them to complete their journey and find Dodge’s old flame.
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World expresses disappointment over the final act. This is an opinion I’m admittedly baffled by. Exactly how did the naysayers want this movie to end? Did they really need to see a montage of glorious destruction, i.e. flashy special effects? If it had nothing to do with that, then what was it about the emotional climax between Knightley and Carell that was lacking? Because their characters are the focus of the film, and because it’s about reestablishing a connection with someone you care about, I frankly don’t see how it could have ended any other way. Everything that needed to be said was actually said, and no more. I think some of us are too conditioned to expect more than is necessary from a narrative resolution.