Seeking a Friend for the End of the World shows the tender side of tragedy

Casting Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as the two leads in a romantic comedy wouldn’t be the most obvious of decisions, yet this is exactly what Lorene Scafaria has done in her directorial debut  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World; her follow-up to 2008’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. With three weeks before an asteroid is due to wipe out all life on earth, abandoned Dodge (Carell) and stranded Penny (Knightley) set out together to reach their loved ones before time runs out.  It’s a bit like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, if Melancholia was a charmingly optimistic date movie minus Kirsten Dunst laid out beside a river.

Per usual, Carell is cast as an unlucky-in-love and on the verge of a mid-life crisis.  This time, though, he takes on more of a straight-man role. As the newly dumped Dodge, Carell is left to react to the wild pandemonium ensuing around him, as people react to their impending doom in a wide variety of hedonistic ways.  Playing the likable schlub is an effortless chore for Carell and it enables the relationship that blossoms between Dodge and Penny to appear far more believable than it otherwise might.  As the hypersomniac Brit who misses the final flight back to her family in England, Knightley uses her allure to the full effect and gives a sweet, emotionally moving performance that carries the second half of the film.  With a sharply dark, comedic look at how society may respond to its final days in the first half, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World takes on a solemn tone midway through the film.  While jarring in its sudden onset, the shift allows Knightley and Carell to spread expand their characters and delivers an effectively touching final act.

As the clock begins to tick down, Scafaria presents several screwball ideas of how people may deal with the news, leading to some outstanding bits of dialogue and incidental experiences.  Writing Penny as a vinyl addict, Scafaria ensures there are numerous opportunities to inject great tunes throughout the duration of the film.  Along with two top-notch performances in the lead, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has a handful of terrific cameos that bring big laughs and will especially please fans of “Community” and “CSI”.  There is so much fun to be had in the first half of the film, it feels something of a let-down when the tonal shift occurs, leaving the vast majority of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’s humour in its dust.  Whilst it would make sense that matters get more serious as time runs out, the fact this happens so quickly rather than gradually hurts the flow of the film.  It’s as if the first half of a great comedy has been stitched together with the great second half of a romantic drama, leaving merely a good film as the result.

The plot is not without others inadequacies: despite the range of responses to the rapidly approaching asteroid, everything seems a bit too civilised and there are a handful of aspects that fail to ring true.  Scafaria’s script clearly favours convenience over realism, but that is forgivable enough given the strong finish.  There is one baffling narrative decision, though, that is rather foolishly attached in the final minutes.  It strains the suspension of disbelief and will unnecessarily lead the viewer to ask why the film wasn’t simply set closer to the end of the world.

Though flawed, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a strong sophomore screenplay from Scafaria and is an impressive directorial debut.  With a great knack for both comedy and drama, if Scafaria can learn to balance and blend those elements, she will be a force to reckon with.  Yet, even with room for improvement, great performances, great laughs and a heart-warming romance make Seeking a Friend for the End of the World one to catch while you can.  8/10

The UK will be Seeking a Friend for the End of the World from 13 July

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