You want a novel concept for a romantic comedy? How’s this? Two people meet just as the world learns that a 70-mile wide asteroid will destroy the Earth in three weeks’ time. Nothing says “light-hearted romance” like THAT scenario, huh? You might think that any movie trying to combine or cross genres as diverse as romance, comedy and Armageddon would sway one way or the other to such a degree that the result would seem like satire, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria has managed to avoid that pitfall with a great premise, great dialogue and great performances by her cast.
As the movie begins, we see Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife hearing news on the radio of a failed attempt to divert the asteroid, and how the End is now a foregone conclusion. She instantly leaves him to find the man she’s always really loved, never to be seen again. It seems most people are taking the opportunity of this remaining time to indulge in all of the lawlessness and hedonism from which we restrain ourselves every day, as the yuppies spend their last days snorting heroin and having orgies, and the street folk loot and riot and vandalize. Dodge, however, copes by making his way to work the next day, one of the few people who are even bothering to do so, even though there’s probably little sense in selling insurance policies that can’t last for another month, but primarily because there’s really nothing else left in his life.
As the riotous masses begin to swarm over his neighborhood, Dodge escapes with Penny (Keira Knightley), a downstairs neighbor, and the two begin something of a road-trip; he resolving to find the “One Who Got Away” and she trying to find a way to get back across the Atlantic to her family in England. They meet all sorts along the way, from Ecstasy-fueled servers at an overly-friendly restaurant, to survivalists who don’t totally “get” the impending Doom, to a clueless local policeman who still takes his job pretty seriously. Of course, they come to learn a good bit about each other along the way and form a bond that more than likely would never have developed in more-normal times.
Everybody loves Steve Carell, primarily from the American television version of “The Office” (and while I’ve always been a fan of his, too, I am almost certainly the last person in the entire nation who has never seen that show). What I find interesting about his screen presence is how, while he’s not traditional leading-man material, he can carry a movie while serving as sort of an emotional fulcrum – he may not always be the one doing the deeds the carry the movie, but he can be what other characters act upon, steering him into situations that drive a story (see The 40-Year Old Virgin and Dan in Real Life, for example). His portrayal of Dodge is of such a hapless nice guy that when he tries to do something as simple as release his Hispanic cleaning lady from the responsibility of her last few weekly visits so that she can be with her family and await The End, even that attempt at a kindly act falls on its face.
Knightley’s portrayal of Penny is just as impressive (and she even gets to chain-smoke while onscreen, which seems to be a prerequisite to her accepting any role anymore, but I digress…), as she convincingly conveys the notion of this person who has lived such a care-free lifestyle finally realizing there are things she should have been caring about all along.
I’m reluctant to outline the plot in any more detail, as seeing the details in black and white make them seem almost like satire, but the screenplay rises so far above whatever the mere reading of a synopsis would lead you to think. There are no action-film clichés about some heroic means of avoiding the cataclysm (at least onscreen, anyway). No, this film is more about how fairly ordinary Joe-Schmoes might behave in the days leading up to The End than it is about The End itself. Carell and Knightley, an unlikely cinematic pairing if there ever was one, keep a focal point of relative sanity throughout their quest as they approach the inevitable end.
The premise does make one think about how awful it would be to know exactly when you’re going to die (a character who gives Dodge and Penny a ride even says, “it’s not natural for a man to know”). As awful as that knowledge must be, multiply it by about seven and a half billion, and surely whatever civil disorder portrayed in this film or any other would pale in comparison to what we human degenerates would actually commit. Sure, some of us would behave badly, but some of us might do as Dodge and Penny do, and spend the last of our time focusing on those we love instead.
I’m sure we’re supposed to feel some sort of happiness that these two people might end up together, but my desire for a “happy ending” (as happy as the End of the World can possibly be) is at conflict with my more rational understanding that these two people aren’t actually in love, and in more normal times, never would be. I did find it sort of uplifting to know that these two lonely people find an emotion, and possibly even a true friendship, to share in such a way that neither must face the End alone. Seeking a Friend… is a very unique movie experience, as even with the knowledge of how it must end, there are still lots of places where the movie made me smile and enjoy getting to know these characters, if only for their few final days.