In his poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”
When it comes to apocalyptic films, Hollywood loves to give us the bang. The end usually comes from aliens destroying all our landmarks or nuclear bombs wreaking havoc on major cities. But Seeking a Friend for the End of the World gives us the whimper – the populace attempting to carrying on with their daily lives despite knowing that the end is inevitably happening in less than a month.
In this film, it’s an asteroid that’s on a collision course with Earth, much like in Armageddon. But instead of witnessing the heroic acts Bruce Willis and his team take to save mankind, the film opens with a radio announcer sullenly informing those listening that our last ditch effort to stop the asteroid has failed before he kicks it over to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys.
We never actually see the asteroid. Instead of an action thriller or a drama, the film is a dark comedy looking at how people react knowing that the end is inevitable. Some, like Patton Oswalt’s character, see the end as a chance to finally have as much meaningless sex as possible. Others, like Warren (Rob Corddry) plan to spend it their final days in a drunken stupor. But our hero Dodge (Steve Carell) is simply going about his normal life – reporting to work every day at a big insurance firm (which is now all but abandoned) just waiting for the clock to eventually expire.
That is until his wife leaves him, causing him to finally reevaluate everything. With the help of his free spirited neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), he decides to set out in search of “the one that got away” – a high school sweetheart who wrote him a letter three months back looking to reconnect.
What unfolds is a funny, moving and rather captivating road movie about these two unlikely companions spending their last days together. The uptight guy/free spirited girl combination is one often seen in Hollywood, but the characters are so rich and the story so unique that it feels fresh and interesting. Plus there are enough turns in the story to keep things from ever feeling overly too predictable.
There are some great comedic moments, most of them capitalizing on the breakdown of social decorum in the face of armageddon. There is some rioting depicted in the film, but most of the characters choose to rebel in more subtle ways. There’s a fantastic dinner party early in the film where a group of repressed characters decide to finally let loose, trying heroine and other hedonistic indulgences. And there’s an incredibly funny scene later in the film showing a corporate chain restaurant where the employees have found a strange way to cope with their inevitable doom.
But as funny as it is, the film is also surprisingly moving and heartfelt. There is a palpable sense of regret Dodge is coping with as he looks back on his life, which has been spent trying to do the right thing and “not die alone.” He’s a guy who lived responsibly and did what he was expected of him, but nonetheless is doomed to be killed along with everyone else, without the wife he’s been providing for there by his side.
It would be easy to make Penny a one-dimensional wacky foil for Dodge who comes along and shakes him out of his comfort zone. But she proves to be a rather complex and flawed character as well. She’s living with regret over not keeping in touch with her family back in England and is also dealing with a break up of her own, one of many pointless relationships she’s had over her life because she can’t handle being alone.
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are both great in their roles. From Carell, it’s a role we’ve seen him play before, but he manages to effortlessly make Dodge very sympathetic and likable. Knightley is absolutely charming and gorgeous as Penny. She makes the character a girl you would want to spend your last remaining days with without ever making Penny seem cartoonish or inauthentic. They are both rich characters that are given some great moments to shine.
The supporting cast is great as well. There are a lot of very talented comedians who crop up in supporting roles. The aforementioned Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt both have fun roles. As do Connie Britton, Rob Huebel and Gillian Jacobs. But the best and most bizarre cameo is William Peterson, who plays a kindly truck driver with a rather strange backstory.
Those looking for a light, screwball comedy may come away from this film disappointed. It’s not laugh-out-loud from beginning to end, which may throw some people off. But if you want a rich movie that feels different from the typical Hollywood fare, I definitely recommend giving this film a shot. It’s a funny, moving, quirky story that will keep you entertained throughout.
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