Thursday, June 21, 2012
When I was a young, introverted high schooler (as opposed to the somewhat older, introverted working stiff I am today), I had a recurring end-of-the-world daydream. There would be some cataclysmic event mere hours, perhaps even minutes away, and the immediacy of death would finally spur me to confess my feelings for any number of girls, a gesture they would surely reciprocate, because it’s my daydream, dammit. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to live long with what I saw to be the more true fact of their dismissal, and it’d still be a little cathartic, right?
Looking back, I still find it kind of sweet in a in a demented sort of way (ahhhh, adolescence). But it's also kind of bullshit, right? It’s narcissistic and cowardly, a invented excuse to really start living life without having to live with the consequences. And it's very much the tune to which Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is scored. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria has no capacity for the dramatics of positivity, and her determination to brush aside her more genuine comedic instincts for Instagram optimism is this film’s deadly blow.
Let's start at the beginning. Dodge (yes, his name is Dodge), being played by Steve Carell and all, is totally helpless when his wife literally walks out on him upon hearing that the world will end (she simply opens the car door and walks away). Instead of spending his time doing anything worthwhile, he goes right back to work at his insurance company. Women express interest in spending romantic time with him, but that's not Dodge's scene. Moping in bathtubs? Absolutely. Enjoying the company of others, even platonically? Boo on that.
Until, that is, his kooky/free-spirit/British/vinyl-loving/sexually-adventurous-but-not-too-adventurous neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), hands him a huge stack of mail that has accidentally gone to her over the last three years, in which lies a letter from his high school sweetheart on whom he's totally had a crush lo these many years. And what do you know, in the letter, she too confesses her love for him! Except she provides no contact information (not even a return address), because, naturally, when you're confessing your love for someone, the last thing you'd want them to do is be able to contact you. Nothing weird about that at all.
So Dodge and Penny, united by their desire to be someplace else (Dodge with his long-lost love, Penny with her family in England), and spurred by the increasing riots in their nameless East Coast city, take to the road, and for awhile, the movie just might work. While escaping the riots, Penny is simultaneously breaking up with her boyfriend, neither of whom are nearly as concerned with the imminent danger as they are with dissecting their differences. Penny and Dodge end up hitching a ride with a simple man with hidden motives, visit one of Penny’s old boyfriends, go to jail, and happen upon a Chili's-style family restaurant turned 24-hour party that doesn't sound good on paper (or in the trailer!), but which I found surprisingly charming, due in no small part to the earnestness of the cast. Scafaria shows a real flair for finding just the right rhythm in these comedic elements, and it’s pretty entertaining, which makes it all the rougher when she decides that's not enough.
Because, of course, what would be the point of having a man and woman team up for an adventure without them getting together? It doesn’t matter how totally ill-fitting the romance is! It’s sweet! It’s not. The levels on which this doesn’t work are innumerable and increasingly troubling. It's not only that you can so clearly see this coming. It's not only that Carell and Knightley are totally mismatched romantically, which isn't only because of the age difference, but rather because their decent comedic chemistry translates not at all into anything lovey-dovey. Centrally, it’s because, like so many of these movies, Dodge brings absolutely nothing to the table.
Sure, who wouldn't love a hot young free spirit like Penny? Considerably less obvious is why she's so hung up on an insurance salesman who's terrible company, never takes her feelings into consideration, and, let’s be honest, looks like Steve Carell. At best you can say it's because she's admitted that she's incapable of not being with someone (handy, then, that she's totally hot), but that doesn't really jive with the way the film posits their romance as the real deal. So this makes two Steve Carell films in as many years (don’t see: Crazy, Stupid, Love.) stuck on the idea of the soul mate while tackling it on only the most superficial level.
And, yes, the whole end-of-the-world thing is a running undercurrent, albeit in a very Urban Outfitters kind of way. It's another fashion for the film, as artificial and fabricated and ill-considered as my high school daydream. People get to act outlandish (fun game - try and figure out how quickly you forget Melanie Lynskey and Patton Oswalt are even in this movie), so long as we don’t have to take them too seriously when the seriously starts getting taken. Because then, watch out you guys, stop fooling around, because this is the mopey part of the dramedy, as we all know the absurd cannot possibly exist alongside the melancholy (#Lubitsch). Now’s time for relationships to be mended and redemption to be found. But it's a deeply dishonest affair. Things happen simply because wouldn't it be nice if they did, confirming, without convincing us of, our greatest hopes in humanity, and assuring the audience that every one of them is a pure force of positivity and selflessness, congratulating them merely for existing.
Posted by Scott Nye at 4:24 PM