I Got Stoned and I Missed It
"As Well as All Your Favorite Classic Hits..."
Right off the bat, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starts with a great joke. Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell-heh—how "inside") are sitting in the car, listening to the news on the radio. It's not good. The space shuttle Deliverance has not been able to destroy or even divert the asteroid "Matilda" that is headed for Earth and will bring all life to an end. "Stay tuned for all the latest developments on this ongoing story, as well as all your favorite classic hits."
There's silence in the car. Then, husband and wife look at each other. Wife opens the car door. And runs as fast as she can...away, into the night, leaving husband gaping. "What just happened?"
That's the tenor of the humor of SAFFEOW—a kind of horrific slapstick that feels frightening, as well as inevitable, like a Blake Edwards comedy. You know a radio station would end a horrific story...even of Armaggeddon...with a reassuring tag-line. And the wife's reaction? Without a word of explanation, escaping? Eh, that one feels real, too.
Dodge is the calm of the storm for all this chaos. Where his friends are freaking out along with the rest of society, he is quietly considering his fate and deciding what he can do with his time, rather than quickly self-destructing. The first part of the film is full of dark humor as Dodge goes to work as an insurance broker ("No, sir, it isn't covered in your policy"), botches a suicide attempt that only garners more responsibility, and everything and everybody systematically shuts down. The skein of traffic comes unraveled, TV reporters freak out ("We're f@&%ed, Bob...") and the lack of consequence—or a future—bring out the worst in people.
Dodge reflects, and as circumstances happen, he decides to seek out "the girl who got away," along with "the girl along for the ride" (Keira Knightley) who has a similar quest—finding a plane to get her back to her parents in England. She's got a car. He says he knows somebody with a plane, so the two contract to maneuver through the chaos to achieve their very short-term goals.
It turns into a road-trip movie, without "the light at the end of the tunnel" and the two may be the last two sane people on Earth. Just when you think someone along the way is normal...or at last coping...there's a surprise. It all plays out in the way that you think it might—circumstances soften the resolve and their zeal for their goals and their attitudes towards each other. Even if the world has an expiration date, there's still enough room to change your mind (in much the same way that Dodge's wife does at the beginning).
Knightley's fine in this, still determined to not let her looks get in the way of an idiosyncratic performance. She is one odd goose, as long as she's not standing still on a runway. Carell's just the opposite here—an internalized performance that maintains a simmering calm. The face changes expression constantly, but the brow is always furrowed, like it's reflecting the first shockwave that hits Earth. He wouldn't betray any unnecessary emotion, even if the world IS coming to an end, and there are nice turns by William Petersen and Martin Sheen, and bombastic ones by Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt (and though it might not be fair) acting the way I think they'd act if they knew the world was coming to an end.
It's a neat trick Lorene Scafaria (she made Nick and Nora's infinite Playlist) pulls off here: the idea couldn't be more "high-concept" and in the hands of, say, Mike Bay, or Mimi Leder, or Roland Emmerich it would be more parts spectacle and surviving than anything having to do with as universal a thing as "coping." The only "high ground" to be found in those films is the one everybody's running to, while the pixel-people to the rear are never seen or heard from again (and never really mattered enough to be portrayed by actors, anyway). Scafaria provides no high ground of safety, but only the artistic high ground of keeping the scale human, the emotions raw, and running the risk of turning sentimental or, worse, encouraging the audience's wrath (being hit with an asteroid would be more humane). She doesn't cheat, keeps it edgy, and allows things to play out...tidily.
And her musical taste? Spending the last night of your life before the power goes out listening to The Walker Brothers? Brilliant.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a Matinee.