Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

A 'Friend' indeed

'Seeking a Friend' has a uniquely sardonic take to the end of the world

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Focus Features
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Mark Moses, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Adam Brody and Martin Sheen
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

There are countless ways for filmmakers to approach the end of the world. And as you may have noticed over the last couple of years, they've come up with plenty. It seems every week or so I'm seeing a new way for the world to end.

Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is one of the latest to give it a shot, and her approach is to use the apocalyptic opportunity first for dark comedy, then for romance. That the film can never quite figure out how to be both at once is, while probably inevitable, also emblematic of its problems navigating (and justifying) all its varying genre and formula requirements.

But while that may be the case, Seeking a Friend remains a forceful, sincere and funny look at a civilization casually accepting its own terrible fate, offering more character depth than you might expect from such an absurd premise, and more levity than you might expect from an end-of-days scenario.

In one sense, this is one of those great examples of a filmmaker just taking a really basic, to-the-point concept, tossing it on paper and seeing what she can come up with. In fact, it feels a little like some sort of classroom brainstorming exercise - "An asteroid is about to destroy Earth, no chance to avoid it. Three weeks left before the end of the world. Go!"

When the news comes over the radio that the final mission to destroy the oncoming asteroid and save everyone's lives has been unsuccessful (you failed us, Bruce Willis!!), Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell in a great, understated performance), sitting in the car with his wife, reacts with outright detachment. His wife, on the other hand, books it out of the car, running away into the background, never to be seen again. It's a nice way to set the tone, and the film continues to emphasize the comedic aspects of the scenario, having a lot of fun with the idea while bracing itself for its harsher realities.

One of the more amusing touches is the normalcy - or at least a distorted version of normalcy - that so many still cling to. They still go to the office, park in the same spot, clean their houses and apartments, broadcast the news. It's both completely irrational and all too rational at the same time.

But for many others, inhibitions hilariously (and depressingly) disappear, whether that means sleeping with whomever they want without fear of disease, hiring a contract killer, or trying whatever drugs they haven't gotten around to yet. In what is probably my favorite line of the movie, Dodge's friend Diane (the hostess of an unofficial end-of-the-world party) excitedly announces, "Sarah and Dave brought heroin!" And the cheering party guests proceed to offer the first dose to one of their teenage daughters.

Dodge isn't interested in any of that; his (and everyoneelse's) pending death hasn't changed him much. He's as cautious and risk-averse as he's ever been, still soft-spoken, regretful and quietly sad. He's just as scared of dying alone as anyone else, but no longer finds it pertinent to try to do anything about it. Only after acquainting himself with his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) - needless to say, a more free-spirited type - does he find the courage and drive to do something meaningful with what's left of his life. For him, it's finding the proverbial one that got away. Penny, herself in a state of chaos after a recent breakup and the sudden realization that she'll probably never see her family again, naturally comes along for the ride.

In the spirit of fair play, I should mention I'm about to start discussing the Dodge/Penny character dynamics and how they relate both to plot and genre. If you do not know where this two-person story is headed, then you have probably never seen a movie before. But if that's the case, you may want to stop here.

Still with me? OK then. As you might imagine, Seeking a Friend becomes more about the budding romance between Dodge and Penny, with his old flame Olivia becoming a mere background detail. To Scafaria's credit, she lets the relationship build through organic interaction between the two and holds off on the "love" aspect until absolutely necessary. The road-movie formula makes that easier (which many have argued is an inherent flaw of road movies - it's too easy a device and too obvious a metaphor).

As Dodge and Penny grow closer while the end of the world grows nearer, it becomes easy for us to connect the dots, observing that two people - virtually any two people - in this bleak a situation would cling to one another, but out of a need for some human connection rather than deep, passionate, storybook romance. The movie kind of tries to have it both ways, in that it can't help but acknowledge the situation for what it is, but still insists on romance as the driving factor.

To a certain extent, this seems like a bit of a compromise, since it fulfills our expectations of a rom-com, but slightly undercuts the importance of the apocalypse backdrop that was the impetus for the entire romance in the first place. So I never really bought that Dodge and Penny were falling head over heels; only that they were running out of time and had found someone with whom to spend their last days. That would have been good enough. I completely believed their emotional bond, but not necessarily their everlasting love.

But especially given the different tones and plot requirements Scafaria is trying to juggle, she does a pretty nice job sidestepping the film's periodic hiccups and emphasizing what works best. Of all the apocalyptic tales we've seen in recent years, this one is, on its face, one of the silliest, but oddly enough winds up one of the most convincing.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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