Friday, June 29, 2012

Not Too Friendly

Some things just seem to work better on paper than they do in execution. At first glance, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World looks like what it aspires to be, a comedic disaster film in the vein of 2012 or Deep Impact but focusing more on the impending victims of this end-of-the-world event. Combined with the solid work of Steve Carell, whose mere presence in The Office, Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love and Date Night raised their comedic efforts tenfold, you could expect that this film would feature a ton of laughs, all the way to Armageddon. Or you could get the much different, far less satisfying movie seen here.

Screenwriter and debuting director Lorene Scafaria, who had previously penned the script for the averagely-reviewed Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, explores the idea of neighbors who had never before acknowledged the others' existence coming together in a time of impending doom. To that end, he pairs the mild-mannered, fatalistic Dodge Petersen (Carell) with the young, optimistic Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley), as they travel together on one final quest before the end times. Dodge, whose wife has left him in the aftermath of humanity's final failed mission to divert the collision trajectory of an asteroid known as Matilda, is searching for a previous flame, the one that got away. He recruits the unlucky-in-love Penny for her car, claiming that he knows someone with a plane that can get her home to England to see her family one last time. The unlikely pair come upon different shades of humanity, people whose infinitely varied ways of dealing with the upcoming disaster can do nothing to stop the ticking clock of Matilda's arrival.

They're bored already by the premise.
Those interactions are the best thing Seeking has to offer, as exploring how people might react to a calamity of this size proves to be an able source of amusement. It doesn't hurt that Scafaria brought in a boatload of amazingly-talented performers to work these small roles, including Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Martin Sheen and William Petersen. Especially entertaining are T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs as servers at "Friendzies" (think Friendly's) who have turned the family restaurant atmosphere into the scene of a drug-fueled orgy. Sadly, not everything is as good, with a scene featuring a military-trained group hoping to survive Matilda's impact by burrowing underground is neither funny nor important to the story overall. Most of these scenes also feel inconsequential, with the events occurring only with the explicit presence of the protagonists (an early-scene riot appears to have left no lasting damage when Dodge and Penny return to the area). With such a varying reactions, you would expect some sort of lasting impact. That doesn't happen until the end, and even then it does so in a most unspectacular fashion.

"Why yes, we ARE high! What was your first clue?
It doesn't help that Carell does little and less in this particular motion picture, a shame as he was my main reason for going to see this film. Not given a whole lot to do, Carell's job seems to be to react to each scene with the same sort of confused look in his eyes and a perpetual frown on his face. He's never given a chance to break out, and his role here is more for your pity than anything else. Relying on his more natural, easy-going charm, Carell plays the straight man in a world gone mad, and it doesn't help that you can see in his eyes a desire to play along that never comes to fruition. I haven't liked Knightley since her role in the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, so I wasn't expecting to enjoy her performance here. But lo and behold, she actually picks up where Carell left off and does her damndest to carry the whole thing on her back, and to her credit she mostly succeeds. Unlike the dour Dodge, Penny actually goes along with much of the silliness that pervades each scene, making her more sympathetic and in tune with the audience. It's her best performance in years, and while still not a GREAT one, it was certainly a nice surprise.

He'll have to settle for writing the Great American Letter.
Unfortunately, while there are plenty of nice ideas that Schafaria puts forth, Seeking is not the movie that decisively puts them all together in anything resembling a cohesive narrative, or even a decent use of a couple of hours. It's not BAD, but the idea that it could have been so much better is a lot to take. The movie never diverts hard to either hilarious spoof or romantic drama, and so the final product has not enough of either to keep afloat. The result is a jumble of decent scenes that somehow add up to less than the sum of their parts. For such a good-looking trailer to turn out as a merely "okay" movie is a little disappointing, but it could still prove somewhat worth your while, depending on your mood. If you decide to watch this, go see a matinee or wait until it's available to rent; whatever you do, don't bother paying full price for your ticket.


Richard J. Marcej said...

I would have preferred the film to end with him alone, in his apartment, having allowed Penny to live out the end with her family.
Course I'm not adverse to movies having down endings.
Did love the soundtrack though. Great choice of "This Guy's In Love with You" by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.

Mr. Anderson said...

You are right about the soundtrack, just a great selection of classic music. Beach Boys, The Hollies, The Walker Brothers... plus I loved having Scissor Sisters thrown in there for good measure.