Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012) Dir. Lorene Scafaria
A comet named Matilda is careering towards earth. A last ditch attempt to thwart it has failed and mankind as we know it will be wiped out in approximately three weeks. In the wake of the impending disaster, newly single insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) embarks on an ill-fated road trip with his kooky neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley), hoping to reunite with his high school sweetheart before the world’s end.
The eerie opening sequence showing Dodge’s stark reaction to the news perfectly captures the surrealism of the situation. Whatever events may unfold, there is no possibility of a happy ending and first time director Lorene Scafaria isn’t afraid to confront this bleak truth head on. If the film had been comprised of sequences like this one, we might have been on to a winner. Unfortunately, Scafaria appears to have bought into the story and, believing she had only three weeks to make the film, spent the time hurriedly jamming every sequence with meandering dialogue, pointless subplots and stereotypes, hoping that the rest would just sort itself out.
Given the subject matter, I expected the narrative to be chaotic but wasn’t prepared for the jarring tonal shifts that work at cross purposes with the plot. This film doesn’t know what it’s trying to be. At times it’s a dark comedy, at others it’s an introspective drama, and at yet others it’s a indie road trip with some romance thrown in. It’s the cinematic jack of all trades and master of none. For the majority of the film, Scafaria’s directorial presence is absent and as a result it fails to really excel in any area. The “funny” bits are only mildly humorous; the sad bits are vaguely touching. Each shift between genres is painfully awkward and self-aware, bringing with it a constant stream of archetypal characters that do nothing to propel the plot. Around every ten minutes a new subplot is introduced that could have been used as an opportunity to flesh out the characters, but instead they come and go and you are still none the wiser as to why the characters are doing any of the things they’re doing or saying any of the things they’re saying. The interchanges are exceptionally banal. I’ve heard better dialogue eavesdropping in the queue at Starbucks.
None of these issues is helped by the lack of chemistry and poor performances of the two leads. I have noticed a tendency amongst comedic actors, who when cast in dramatic roles, respond by acting as if every semblance of life has been drained from their body, leaving them unable to smile, blink or emote in any way. Sometimes it works e.g. Zack Braff in “Garden State,” Will Ferrell in “Stranger Than Fiction”, Jim Carey in “Eternal Sunshine..” Here, it doesn’t. Carell’s inexplicably emotionless Dodge becomes very wearing, very quickly. In order to root for Dodge, we needed to be able to connect to him in some way, and with Carell’s emotion level registering at about a -2 on the Richter scale, this was impossible to do.
Once, I developed a bad case of eczema on the third and fourth fingers of my left hand. It was a small patch of dry skin which rapidly became a red raw seeping mess. If I scratched it, it would bleed. If I didn’t scratch it, it would throb and cry out to be itched. This was a very frustrating and painful experience for me. Watching Keira Knightley gurn, twitch and scrunch her face throughout the majority of her scenes brought up a lot of the same feelings for me. I’m not sure which drama school Ms Knightley attended but evidently it was one where its pupils are advised to squint and deliver their lines in rapid bursts as a valid means of conveying emotion and I would imagine Ms Knightley graduated with first class honours, as its all she does throughout the film.Her character Penny, is some kind of hodgepodge of boho hipster chic: Her dress sense is wildly uncoordinated, she wears blue nail varnish, she only listens to vinyl records. She wears converse. She even has one side of her hair longer than the other. She’s about a blue streak in her hair and a pair of Ray Bans away from being the most predictable paint by numbers “quirky girl” prototype since Kirsten Dunst’s “Claire Colborn” in “Elizabethtown.”All attempts at giving her substance and depth, save for a surprisingly touching phone call home to her family, are so manufactured I practically gave myself a migraine rolling my eyes.
The differences between the two leads is clear and at times amusing but it’s highlighted so often it’s almost as if the film is gleefully yelling, “Hey, look, they’re total polar opposites and they’re on a road trip!! Do you see what we’re doing here? Juxtaposition!!! Contrast!!YAY!!” As you would expect, the unlikely pair’s friendship soon shifts into an unlikely romance. But it is difficult to understand at which point the burgeoning seeds of love were sown as none of the appropriate groundwork or interplay between the leads that would have made this development plausible has been done. The film’s ending had the potential to redeem what was essentially a very dull and disappointing affair and for a moment it almost did. However, clearly the temptation to tack on a cloying Hollywood finale, was just too good to resist and what could have been a very thoughtful and powerful climax is as much of a let-down as the rest of the film.
I’m not quite sure who the intended audience for this film is, nor do I truly understand exactly what the film’s pivotal message was. I only know that if I was supposed to leave the cinema wishing that a meteor really was hurtling towards earth so that I wouldn’t have long to feel bad about spending my hard earned money on watching this, then the film achieves its goal admirably.