Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Brings Forth Unexpected Chemistry Between Carell and Knightley

Where the sidewalk ends

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Knightley and Carell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

Don’t worry about floods, earthquakes or burning to death in an apocalyptic fire. When the end comes, protect yourself with love. This is the message conveyed in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s feature film debut. It’s an intriguing take on the apocalypse as a pragmatic tone poem, with comedian Steve Carell in his first deeply dramatic role (at least, the first one I’ve seen). He is very touching and unexpectedly appealing, and with co-star Keira Knightley he exhibits a romantic chemistry of which I never thought him capable.

An asteroid named Matilda 70-miles wide is hurling toward planet Earth and is expected to collide in 21 days. Cell phones are useless. Water and power are cut off. People trying to escape the cities are trapped in endless gridlock. Life has lost all meaning, and the final flights on commercial airlines have just left the ground, signalling the demise of air travel forever. Mr. Carell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman, who watches the unfolding tragedy on the network news with a mixture of horror and resignation, while his wife simply leaps from the car and leaves him on the spot. He’s introverted and already bruised by life. Now he faces death alone. “This is the Titanic,” says his best friend, “and there’s not a life boat in sight.”

Enter Penny, a flaky downstairs neighbor in his apartment building he’s always carefully avoided—neurotic, extroverted, resistant to reality. Secretly, she’s been withholding Dodge’s mail and now she delivers a letter from his long-lost high-school sweetheart. Distraught and clueless as to where to turn next, the two strangers who have met accidentally join forces and hit the highway to find his old lover in New Jersey, then travel on to locate Penny’s family in Maryland. The movie chronicles their road trip and introduces the characters they meet along the way—a man they hitch a ride with who speeds up his suicide with the help of a hired assassin, the partygoers in a roadside diner where the staff serves an orgy to desperate, oversexed customers, a highway cop determined to uphold the law right up to the final blackout by writing up a speeding ticket. Penny locates an old boyfriend living in a fallout shelter with enough potato chips to last another six months. Dodge gets as far as a reunion with the estranged father he hasn’t seen in years (Martin Sheen). The movie shows how perspectives change—or remain the same—in the face of ultimate tragedy. There is room for tears, mixed with unexpected humor. As the final blackout approaches and the TV stations leave the airwaves with one final test pattern, the announcer reminds everyone watching to set their clocks ahead for Daylight Savings Time.

This is an unusual film, resistant to the usual end-of-mankind clichés. The script is full of surprises, even when the parts don’t always come together with the desired impact. The pace sometimes drags, and the focus wavers. Yet the film asks a lot of valid, disturbing questions to which Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay provides no easy answers. What would you do? Take up smoking again? Drink all the vodka in the liquor cabinet? Eat every fattening food the nutrition Nazis warn about? Have sex with anyone you want because “nobody is anybody’s anything anymore?” In the overlapping hours of their search, Dodge and Penny find a new definition of love that is irresistibly moving. If nothing else, see it for the two central performances. Keira Knightley finds a role without a trace of her usual glamour, while Steve Carell finally stretches his talents with more depth and quiet thoughtfulness than he’s ever been invited to previously display.

After so many hellish apocalypse movies, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is intelligent, dignified and emotionally satisfying. The message is simple. If the end is inevitable, then it’s better to face it with your arms around someone you love than alone and forlorn in an empty bed. The choices you make can lead to something oddly akin to optimism.

rreed@observer.com

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

Running Time 101 minutes

Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Starring Steve Carell, Keira Knightley and Melanie Lynskey

3/4