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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Rated R

Who knew spending the last night on Earth with Keira Knightley and Steve Carell would prove to be such a deeply unsatisfying experience?

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Things start off on a promising note: Space shuttle Deliverance, humanity’s last hope for disrupting an asteroid’s collision course with Earth, has blown up. We’re all doomed and there are only three weeks before impact.

How the heck is that a promising note? The opening scenes are heavy on satire and there are some pretty good laughs as radio and TV talking heads refer to things like the End of the World Awareness Concert; employees are allowed to wear “casual Friday” clothes every day of the week; countdown clocks serve as a constant reminder of how much time is left; people advertise for suicide-by-assassination services; a magazine’s “Best of Humanity” issue puts Jesus and Oprah on the cover; and, of course, people inquire about apocalypse insurance coverage.

Oh yeah, and of course the most base of human behaviors come out. Drugs are in ample supply; parents teach their children how to drink hard liquor; and racking up sexual conquests becomes an even more urgent priority, one made easier given the newly-leveled dating playing field.

Well, in retrospect, perhaps some of that humor benefited from an early head buzz of hope for this end-of-the-world fable. It’s not long before doubts set in, then dread. This isn’t a zany apocalyptic love story, or possibly a figment of the lead character’s imagination, as one particularly awkward conversation seemingly teases. It doesn’t even offer a life-affirming, seize the day message.

No. This movie really wants to strum the heart strings, but it's tone deaf. More time should’ve been spent developing the uninteresting characters in order to make the sluggish third act more bearable.

Unbearable Lightness of Fleeing

So who are these characters?

Well, there’s Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin). He’s a boring guy whose wife left him for another man. It’s not surprising. Dodge is boring. He’s boring at the beginning of the movie and he’s boring at the end of the movie. He’s boring but, gosh, he’s got a good heart.

Then there’s Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method). You don’t have to give her one for her to share her thoughts – all of them. She spills her guts to Dodge, an apartment neighbor, when they first meet. She’s upset she missed the last flight –ever – that could’ve taken her to see her parents. What’s worse, her deadbeat boyfriend walked off with her (vinyl) copy of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

At one point, Dodge attempts suicide in a public park by downing cough syrup and a bottle of window cleaner. What happens next? He wakes up with an abandoned dog at his side and a note that simply says, “Sorry.”

The movie then turns into something of a road trip as Dodge, Penny, and the dog flee their neighborhood and the vandalism instigated by the imminent end of the world. They go in search of Dodge’s long lost love and a plane ride for Penny (Dodge knows a guy who owns a plane).

Along the way, they run into William Petersen (To Live and Die in L.A.), who plays a down-and-out trucker who’d rather end his life sooner than later. Penny asks him to share his life story (that’s how she rolls and that’s how this movie attempts to build characters). He suggests he starts with his dad’s life story in order to put things in context.

Oh brother. As a joke, it works. But these characters don’t really have much to say.

In another episode, Dodge and Penny excitedly run into Friendsy’s, an obvious spoof of T.G.I. Friday’s (and ostensibly just about every other casual dining experience in the US of A). Like the bulk of this movie, even select scenes start funny or quirky, then quickly devolve to annoying.

Broken Record

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Nice rack.
Photo: Focus Features

The whole time they’re on the road, Penny lugs around a stack of vinyl LPs, it’s a conspicuous collection for a contemporary 28-year-old that includes Leonard Cohen, The Hollies, and Scott Walker. It becomes a bit of a distraction trying to identify which albums are in her collection.

Is this thing semi-autobiographical? Writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who also wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, also happens to be a singer/songwriter. Her song 28 (Penny’s age, coincidentally) was used in the movie Whip It! And, as her very own bio notes on the movie’s site, a collaborative album she worked on was “released MUCH too soon.” (It’s a sloppy site at that; the character name Hannibal Lecter is horribly butchered under William Petersen’s bio.)

Maybe this movie was also released MUCH too soon.

While in pursuit of Dodge’s lost love, they squat in a house that just so happens to have an old-school children’s monaural record player. But for this movie’s purposes it might as well be a complete Pioneer high-fidelity rack. Why not? Any airs of emotional authenticity were abandoned in the movie’s first frames.

It’s simply one more stop in what becomes an incredibly tedious journey toward a lame conclusion. Even at only 94 minutes, this movie about the end of the world couldn’t end fast enough.

• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.

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Name Games

Dodge and Penny. Deep sigh. Carell and Knightley deserve better.

Theirs is an improbable relationship. And in their names alone lies the beginning of this movie’s troubles.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Photos: Focus Features

The movie having quickly established its pseudo-arthouse aspirations, it’s cringe-inducing when Dodge is told, “You can’t run from this, Dodge.”  Yeah. He’s been “dodging” life; he admits as much when he says he’s been waiting a lifetime for the worst to happen. It could’ve turned into a joke if his dad’s name was Ford or Chevy, but he’s named Frank (and played by Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now).

At least Penny’s surname, Lockhart, is only seen on a police mug shot slate.

The irritation sets in further when it’s revealed miserable ol’ Dodge and poor Penny live on Division Avenue. And guess what? Dodge begins to pull his life together on Union Avenue.

Sure, it’s a common device to give characters and places names that help reinforce thematic elements. But it’s all in the execution. Here it’s the kind of pummeling by symbolism that turns this initially agreeable movie into an egregious exercise in artifice masquerading as art. This is the worst case of wannabe pretentious arthouse nonsense since We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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