Dr. Johnson memorably said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. Part of what stories do for us is concentrate the mind by providing us with narratives that eliminate distracting quotidian effluvia and allow us to focus on one element of the story. In “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) makes that concentration explicit. The world is literally ending in three weeks, and we get to see how that concentrates the minds of Dodge (Steve Carell), Penny (Kiera Knightley), and the people they meet as everyone has to decide what from their “someday” list gets moved up to “now.”
Lorene Scafaria, who wrote the lovely “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” here directs her own screenplay with a top-notch cast and a sure sense of tone and pacing. The classic elements of the journey film with a mis-matched pair on the road in search of something is kept fresh through the setting, the adventures and encounters along the way, and sensitive performances from Carell and Knightley.
As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might have predicted, a lot of people get stuck in stage one: denial. The movie opens as Dodge and his wife hear the radio announcer promise to keep the audience up to date on the progress of the asteroid known as Matilda and its collision path with Earth, along with a countdown to the end of days and “all your classic rock favorites.” At first, most people run on automatic pilot. Dodge goes to his office and tries to explain to a client that his insurance policy does not really cover what is about to happen. “The Armageddon policy is extra.” His boss tries to fill some abandoned positions by offering promotions. People who always wanted to kill someone offer their services as assassins for hire by those who do not want to be alive when the meteor hits. Musicians put on an end of the world awareness concert. It’s like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff and staying suspended in air until the realization hits — and then he does.
People start to get desperate. Dodge’s wife leaves him. A friend (Patten Oswalt) explains that the end of the world has made it very easy to sleep with women. Dodge’s friends have a party and try to fix him up with a woman (Melanie Lynskey) who arrives wearing all of the jewelry she was saving for the right occasion. But that is not what he wants. The world is increasingly divided between people who choose various ways to numb themselves and those who take this last chance to stop being numb.
Dodge meets his neighbor, Penny, an English girl who has missed the last opportunity to get back to her family. She has a mis-delivered letter from a girl he loved and lost. And she has a car. When rioters take over their building, he offers to get her to a plane if she will help him find the woman who sent the letter. Helping each other gives them purpose. Getting to know Penny gives Dodge more of a sense of being alive than he has ever had before. Dodge had always been too cautious. Penny had always been too irresponsible. Now he must take chances and she must grow up. It’s never too late.
On their journey, they see people and places from their past, including Penny’s survivalist ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke), who thinks that stockpiling weapons and canned goods will help him rebuild society. They stop at a relentlessly chipper restaurant called Friendsy’s (yes, lots and lots of flair) where the staff’s increasingly shrill Ecstasy-fueled cheeriness becomes borderline deranged. And then, even with just days and then hours left, they begin to shift from the past to the future. And, as Rabindrath Tagore wrote, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
Parents should know that this film includes disturbing end-of-the-world themes, very strong language, explicit sexual references, drinking, drug use, and brief violence.
Family discussion: What would you do if you were in Dodge’s position? What took them so long to understand what they needed to do?
If you like this, try: “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” by the same screenwriter, and other end of world stories like “Melancholia,” “On the Beach,” “Children of Men,” and “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”