Over the last few weeks I’ve done quite a few of these Picks of Online Film, and to be honest you might be able to see a bit of a theme running through them: most of them contain at least elements of horror. And that’s not a coincidence, I like horror movies, I like movies that have bits of horror in them, and I even like movies that’s sole purpose is to make things just unsettling enough to be uncomfortable—looking at you Escape from Tomorrow (2013)—but I haven’t done very many comedies. And that’s for good reason, writing an analysis of comedy is hard, first and foremost because comedy is completely subjective. I don’t necessarily find the same things funny as the people I’m closest too, even my family members. With horror you have a pretty good idea of what’s going to scare everyone, comedy is a decidedly mixed bag. But I also promised a friend of mine that I wouldn’t write about anything scary this week. So, I have to cheat a little bit. Because in all honesty while the movie I chose for this week’s column is a comedy, but it’s also definitely a dark comedy. In fact it’s a comedy about the end of the world and, to be frank, with the way things are going right now that seems like a pretty genuine possibility. So without further ado, for these reasons and ones I’ll outline later, this week’s Pick of Online Film is the 2012 dark comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).
The plot behind Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is about as simple as it gets. There’s an asteroid named “Matilda” that’s headed straight for earth. The film actually begins with a news report that what one assumes is an Armageddon-style mission has failed. The asteroid is coming to earth and will be here in a matter of three weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s (Steve Carell) wife gets out of the car in which she is sitting and runs away. Right off into the sunset. Dodge returns home to see that his downstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) has broken up with her boyfriend. The world is quickly falling apart around them and through some clever machinations Penny gives Dodge all his mail she’s collected that was mistakenly delivered to her over the years. Contained inside is a letter from Dodge’s high school sweetheart, Olivia (portrayed in the film by the director Lorene Scafaria, who readers may recognise from a few weeks ago from Coherence). Olivia it appears, has never gotten over Dodge, and what’s more, the letter informs him, she is now divorced with a son. There is no return address on the envelope. As Dodge watches the news and mulls over the letter, riots outside his building reach fever pitch. Dodge runs downstairs where he collects Penny who agrees to take Dodge to find Olivia in exchange for passage to England and her family by way of a man Dodge knows with a plane.
What I think I admire the most about this film is its earnestness, which is a tricky thing to say because read with a certain tone, that statement can be viewed as something of a backhanded compliment. But, to put it simply, the film creates a set of rules and it sticks to them. To ruin the end of the film: there is no escape in the closing moments, the world does end and no one makes it. With the plot neatly tied up like this though leaves Scafaria the ability to invest wholly into the characters and their dimensions. Carell will, over the years, almost certainly be best remembered for his legendary turn as Michael Scott in the American version of The Office. But he’s turned into quite the dramatic actor over the last few years and the roots of this transition can be witnessed in this film. He is noticeably thinner than when he played Scott, with clothes that don’t fit and shaggier, unruly hair. What’s most impressive about his performance though, is his deft skill with different styles of comedy. Where Andy from The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) was blissfully ignorant and Scott was ignorantly blissful, Dodge has a deeper understanding of himself and is able to grapple with this throughout the film. He is a man that’s spent his entire life afraid of what it contains and now that it has a definitive expiration date must contend with his own failures. His comedic moments then are more conversational rather than ironic, the type of jokes and comments you would hear in everyday life and ones that lie entirely at the feet of his comedic timing.
This conversational style of comedy is spread across both the film’s leads, and Knightley proves herself capable of holding the screen with Carell. Her character’s quirks haven’t aged particularly well – in our post-hipster world her obsession with vinyl feels a bit on the nose – but Knightley is such a gifted actress and the material is well written enough that she is not defined by these traits. In one of the films darker moments, Dodge and Penny have paid a visit to one of Penny’s ex-boyfriend’s in order to obtain a car. He is a survivalist and his bunker has a satellite phone inside, from it Penny is able finally to get into contact with her family across the pond. It’s without a doubt the film’s most emotionally devastating moment as Penny first talks to her parents and then her brothers, asking about the niece she hasn’t gotten to meet who she can hear gabbling in the background. Penny who in a lesser film, could’ve been written off as the stereotypical manic pixie dream girl, becomes a fully realised character in these moments and that’s entirely on the back of Knightley’s performance.
But these emotional bits of the film are only as effective as they are due to the films lighter moments, even if they are about the end of the world. Such as when they aforementioned coworker plummets onto the hood of Dodge’s car. Some of the most amusing gags in the film are the different scenarios Scafaria imagines would surround the earth’s impending doom. These different set pieces are tight and populated by fairly well-known actors, such as Patton Oswalt as a male coworker sleeping his way to the apocalypse or TJ Miller as an ecstasy addled roadhouse employee. The one that sticks out to me though, as perfect an encapsulation of the films tone though occurs just as Penny and Dodge have left their apartment. Penny’s car has run out of gas and they happen to be picked up by a trucker played by William Petersen. Penny asks him to “tell them his life story” and Peterson for some reason decides that to tell him his, he must first tell them his Daddy’s.
Dodge looks like he wants to vomit. The scene changes, and the trucker pulls over to the side of the road. Dodge has noticed his shovels in the back of the truck and is unnerved, even more so when Petersen asks him to join him on a trip to the bathroom in the nearby field. Penny insists he can’t be evil, he’s just told him his life story after all, and upon his return she takes her dog for a restroom break of his own. It’s now just Dodge and the trucker. Petersen asks Dodge how he’s going to do it, stating that he recognises the vague look in Dodge’s eyes, he knows it’s him. Dodge is understandably confused by all of this, until he realises that this stranger has hired someone to assassinate him in order to exploit a perceived loophole in the religious stigma of suicide. It is a brutally funny exchange, with Petersen demonstrating his own ability as the comedic straight man in a case of mistaken identity involving suicide by homicide. Here we see Scafaria’s pragmatic, everyman’s view of the apocalypse. These characters are not heroes; they’re just people trying to live in a situation in which no one makes it out alive. And it’s a moment that’s broken sharply by the cracking of bullet through the trucker’s neck from a previously unseen unmarked car parked across the street. Carell’s reaction is priceless.
This is what I mean when I say that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an earnest film. The rules of the plot are set early on and then played out to their very end. Carell and Knightley give rounded, engaging performances that stand out from the flat, obtuse, and mumbling style common in a large majority of the romantic comedies that had come into style during the time of this film’s release. And what’s more both actors are actually acting, a phrase which may not make sense until you realise how often comedic performers are just brought in to play a different iteration of their comedy routine on film. If you think I’m crazy look at just about any film containing Zach Galifinakas or Amy Schumer. It’s for these strengths and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’s finely honed tone that its culturised’s most recent Pick of Online Film.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is available to stream on Netflix US or Amazon Video in both the US and UK.