June 30, 2012

MOVIES: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012, Lorene Scafaria)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is, I'm afraid, not a good movie. It's a romantic comedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Yes, the apocalypse, because that's always funny. A giant asteroid is on its way to smash into the planet, and the final attempt to blow it up has failed, leaving humanity with but three weeks to live.

Carell is Dodge, a meek insurance salesman whose wife left him some weeks ago, when the asteroid was first discovered. Knightley is Penny, a mildly depressive young woman who has missed the last flight back to England and will not get to spend the final days with her family. They meet cute and set off on a road trip; he promises that if she'll take him to see his high school sweetheart, he'll take her to a pilot who can get her back to England.

Much of the movie is a two-hander for Carell and Knightley, and they don't have much chemistry. They aren't helped by the fact that they're both fairly low-energy characters -- she suffers from "hypersomnia," so she sleeps a lot and doesn't have much pizzazz even when she's awake -- so the movie only really comes alive when someone else enters the story.

Some of those bit performances are quite nice -- Derek Luke as one of Penny's old boyfriends, Mark Moses as a cable news anchor, Martin Sheen as Dodge's pilot, Gillian Jacobs and TJ Miller as perky restaurant staff -- but none of those characters are in the movie for more than five minutes or so, then we're back to plodding along with Dodge and Penny.

There are some nice details in the background, as we see the different ways people try to cope with their impending doom. A slightly manic human resources guy asks the few people who've bothered to come to work if anyone wants to be the new CFO; a maid can't understand why her employer tells her not to come to work any more ("You're firing me?").

The apocalypse doesn't have to be handled in grand operatic fashion, as it is in (for example) Melancholia, but if you're going to go small and intimate with it, you have to give us compelling characters, and Seeking a Friend doesn't. Skip this, and in its place, rent the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, a quiet tale of Earth's last six hours.

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