Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

July 26, 2012

The pseudo-indie dramedies that Steve Carell has traded in for a number of years now have had a remarkably solid track record – non truly amazing but always just pleasant enough; they’ve been schmaltzy but tempered just enough to make them work on some level.  The idea of putting his sad-sack character in an End-of-the-World film reeks of some sort of quirky half-assery on the part of whatever “indie” division at a studio agreed to put money up for the production.  I can imagine someone saying, “Melancholia-lite might sell this year.”  Still, even if the result is not ground-breaking, nor does it transcend the rather milquetoast pleasures of other Carell fare like Dan in Real Life, it has an oddball, morbid quality that creates a distinctly bittersweet aftertaste.  It also features what might be Carell’s best rendition of this character, and it’s utterly refreshing to know he’s not yet sleepwalking through these roles yet. 

The directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, Seeking a Friend from the End of the World suffers from some the same general problems that plagued her previous script for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  There are some wild tonal shifts, as well as an episodic structure, that prevents the film from settling into something cohesive.  Early scenes, once Dodge (Carell) has been abandoned by his wife and he spends time with friends at parties, feel wildly misjudged – as amusing as “Heroin!? Bucket List!” might be to some, the sight of parents feeding their very young children alcohol is just flat out grim – against the scenes where he meets his quirky neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley), a character that is essentially written as a manic pixie dream girl but manages to stay just this side of tolerable, and even a little more, by the performance.  The film, as a whole, is dark but not black.  It retains far too much sweetness, both in story as well as in Carell and Knightley, to ever stay too long in the kind of nasty, cynical area that something with a hard edge would require to work.  A pit stop at a TGI Fridays-type restaurant begins with a satirical slant as the staff are as overly friendly as ever, but as it wears on and you realize they’re all drunk or high, and that over-friendliness turns into orgiastic revelry, their doomed plight comes to the fore.  It isn’t the depression of the people in this world that hurts; it’s the desperate abandon with which they try to cope with impending calamity that really stings.

Scafaria, it turns out, has solid directorial chops that infuse the dialogue scenes with something more affecting than what is written.  It doesn’t hurt that she has Tim Orr, one of the best cinematographer working today, lensing the whole thing in an almost hazy wistfulness.  It helps anchor the film when it could have been too starkly bleak or flatly colourful and bright.  It doesn’t save the picture from its eventual, saccharine destination, but even these scenes aren’t ruinous.  Even as there’s a point where it probably should have ended, the finale works well enough because of some bravura work by Carell and Knightley.  There was a worry that it would cop-out with its premise, but it resolves itself well.  I might not totally buy the ending, but it doesn’t betray anything that came before it.  The whole thing will probably be off-putting to audiences (and it has not been anywhere near a financial success, even though its low budget all but ensures it can’t flop), but I admired what Scafaria was trying to do.  It may never reach the kind of transcendent, though-provoking emotions that a film about the end of the world might strive for, but it never descends completely into banality.  Carell is, as I said, very good at this sort of thing.  He does resignation very well, but he’s equally adept at pulling out the longing and regret when needs be, and Knightley has become assured enough of an actress to lift a poorly written character out from the depths of tedium.  All in all, it’s a decent enough stab at a tough sell, and that’s just fine.


2 Responses to “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”

  1. Greg Says:

    As Kermode says, the “ending” is clear and you should walk out of the theatre at that point.

    This has the looks of a Netflix to me.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      Ha. I haven’t heard him talk about it, but I guess that’s a common view. I don’t think it’s pointless after that, because they do incredibly well with a scene after it.

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