It seems like an age-old cinematic question: what would you do if you knew the end of the world was near? Most films depict riots, looting, crazy parties or on the other side of that coin, romantic or reconciliatory last ditch efforts to make you go, “Aww.” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring the cute and lovely (respectively) Keira Knightley and Steve Carrell, is a film that also has all these things, but with just the right amount of humanity to make it go down easy.
Faced this time with a Tim Burton-esque sounding threat: an asteroid named Matilda that is headed for Earth, Steve Carrell finds himself in his usual comedic stature here (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love) – he’s depressed and questioning his life and what it’s all been worth. It’s such familiar territory for him that there’s even a moment in the outtakes of the film where he cuts the scene before the director because he thought he could do a better take. Carrell is a talented actor, there’s no question about that, but I’m frankly a little tired now of the character he is always forced into. I’m all for comedy-via-self-deprecation, but there’s got to be something else he can do. Maybe a Robin Williams turn like in One Hour Photo would do Carrell good, and he could hone his acting chops on a character not so nice and empathizable for once.
Keira Knightley seems oddly less typecast than usual in this film, but maybe that’s because I’m more akin to her brooding romantic character creations which I’m generally fond of, even if the period pieces do get a wee bit old after a while. She’s a good fit for the character and her British lilt is charming and works given her character’s driving ulterior motive (she wants to visit her parents in England before the end of the world).
As fate would have it, mere weeks before their demise, these two soul mates finally meet. She helps him realize what he’s been missing all his life, and he helps her on the same front. The nice things about the movie is, it doesn’t make these characters necessarily perfect for, or a good balance for each other, but it makes them the kind of people who are willing to accept the other for their good and bad qualities and stick by them no matter what happens. They really do become friends before they ever realize their love for each other, and that’s subtly what leads them to even realize it.
The pacing and story of this film is superb. We knows there’s an imminent countdown to their fate looming over everything, and even when we start to wonder if that’s just all been forgotten by the filmmakers, the next scene throws a curve, declaring via news report that the asteroid’s actually a week early in its arrival. There’s no overly drawn out cinematic need to anticipate the inevitable – the audience is already anticipating it. In fact, I was literally in disbelief the whole way through, thinking there was surely going to be some red herring at the end that enabled the asteroid to just miss Earth, and everyone would get to live happily ever after. But then, I know I wouldn’t have been happy with that ending after a while, because how simple, painless and obvious would that be?
No, the filmmakers stick to their guns and go out on a poetic note even, in a denouement of scenes that will surely have you welling up with tears, if not full on crying into your shirt sleeves. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be easy to pan for many film critics, but I found it a refreshing take on the end-of-the-world movie and a smart, funny examination of what we really are as humans: fools, not so much scared of the end of life, but scared of living life, and consequently trying to always be something we’re not until we finally realize it’s too late.