Saturday 24 February 2018

The end of the world as we know it

Paul Whitington

film of the week

seeking a friend for the end of the world (15A, general release, 101minutes)

Director: Lorene Scafaria Stars: Keira Knightley, Steve Carell, William Petersen, Martin Sheen


The end of the world as we know it

There's a big difference between being told you have weeks to live, and finding out the world has weeks to live. In the former predicament, the dilemma about how to spend your final hours is usually solved by the distraction of illness; in the latter, good health leaves you free to contemplate the full horror of human extinction.

This is the unsettling scenario explored in Lorene Scafaria's directorial debut, a pithy and whimsical comic drama that doesn't quite have the courage of its convictions.

The end of the world might not be the worst news for everyone.

Steve Carell is Dodge, a rather solemn San Francisco insurance salesman who clings tenaciously to a doomed marriage and hopes for better times.

As soon as his wife finds out the planet will soon be obliterated by a stray asteroid, she leaves him, and Dodge is left to contemplate his species' impending extinction alone. Not for long; when Dodge gets drunk on window cleaner at an insufferable 'end of the world party' and collapses in a public park, he wakes to find a cute, abandoned terrier staring mournfully up at him.

When Dodge takes the dog home, an even cuter new friend appears on his apartment fire escape. Penny (Keira Knightley) has just kicked her self-obsessed boyfriend out because he made her miss the last plane from California to London, where her whole family live. She's devastated, so Dodge asks her in. And when law and order begins to collapse in the Bay area, Dodge and Penny take off together in her car.

Their plans are vague: she wants to get to England and he claims he knows someone with a private plane; and he is on a more quixotic quest to find his first and truest love, Olivia.

Along the way, the fates conspire to help them. When their car breaks down they're given a ride by a friendly trucker (William Petersen). He later confides that he's hired a hitman to kill him because he can't tolerate the notion of waiting around for Armageddon, and assumed that Dodge was that killer.

He's not, but the true assassin then appears, and Dodge and Penny inherit the poor man's truck and shoot off towards Olivia's last known address.

Dodge has not thought much beyond the appealing notion of spending the end of days with the only woman he really loved, but meanwhile he and Penny realise they have a surprising amount in common.

Scafaria made her name as a writer, and was responsible for the clever screenplay of the 2008 hit comedy Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. In ways, her writing on this film is darker, and more accomplished. In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World's earlier scenes, humanity's lack of vision in the face of disaster is nicely lampooned. At the nihilistic party where Dodge ends up resorting to window cleaner cocktails, hysterical parents swap partners and encourage their kids to try heroin.

Scafaria may even be hinting at a deeper theme of the western world's diminished spirituality, but if so she doesn't investigate it for very long. And despite this early promise, her intriguing film soon dissolves into the familiar patterns of a Hollywood romcom.

The script may be unsatisfyingly glib when it comes to exploring the full ramifications of human extinction, but Scafaria's sense of humour and comic timing cover a multitude of sins, and there are some nice performances along the way, from the wonderful Petersen, Martin Sheen and Carell, who is a surprisingly skillful and subtle straight actor.

Comedy, however, is kryptonite to Knightley, who pours ice cubes down the back of any joke she encounters.

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