“Once again, if you’re just tuning in, the CSA space shuttle Deliverance has been destroyed. The final mission to save mankind has failed. The seventy mile-wide asteroid known commonly as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with the Earth in exactly three weeks’ time…and we’ll be bringing you up-to-the-minute coverage of our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites. This is Q-107.2.”
Out of thin air and apropos of nothing, “the one who got away” butt-dialed me two years ago March. At a different time, in a different world, and so forth. This assumes butt-dialing is even still a thing, of course, but I never knew her to drink to excess or be especially prone to spontaneous outbursts of unproductive emotion. Not any more than anyone else (or I) was, that is. No message left, just the notification by name of a missed call from a girl I still occasionally gave wistful thought, despite not having talked to her in years. I didn’t hear the phone buzz, and only made the discovery after the fact, while waiting with two dear friends for a concert at Columbus, Ohio’s Nationwide Arena to start. By way of context, I haven’t seen a concert in almost exactly a year now; or one of those friends – who drove in from a different state for the occasion – in approaching two. I haven’t seen her in far longer, certainly, and can’t deny the fact gnaws at me sometimes. Even now, I wonder what might have been. Especially now. Especially during a pandemic. Might we have lasted? Might we be curled up on a couch this very minute, contentedly watching cheesy horror movies together as the temperature in the relative stillness outside dipped below freezing? It’s a tantalizing unknown, though, realistically, I have my doubts. Sometimes I actively miss her. I never heard from her again. Honestly, it was enough that she still had my name programmed into her phone too.
That this memory materialized just as I was trying to organize my thoughts on Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World helps illustrate the film’s sneaky central strength: its random objectivity. Here is a movie that walks like a traditional romantic comedy and sometimes even quacks like one – among its cavalcade of other, more exotic noises – yet is hardly dependent for its success on presenting a predetermined couple in a predetermined state by its end. Indeed, in this case, said “end” is the only predetermined element, and the key to Scafaria’s script, the beauty it gradually reveals, lies in forcing both its characters and audience to continually contemplate and redefine exactly where they believe they are headed, and on what terms. If you had irrefutable knowledge, with no hope of escape or survival, that the world was going to end on such and such a date, how, and with whom, might you spend your allotted time remaining? What if your intended had other ideas? Imagine you were alone to begin with? Confusion naturally reigns in such a scenario, and desperation, and chaos, despair, and even nihilistic apathy. Not ideal conditions for love to blossom, I think you’d agree. Love as a concept is more an open question here than a reality on the ground to be negotiated, a “nice to have” that will definitely weigh down your travels. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is no traditional movie romance. But it is one hell of a situation in which to find yourself…taking both meanings of the phrase.
The melancholic Dodge Henderson (Steve Carrell) and his soon-to-be ex-wife sit in stunned silence in a lonely car parked by the shore, listening with incredulity as a solemn reporter on the local classic rock station confirms humanity’s impending doom. Such news requires a second to process, surely, and, to her credit, Dodge’s wife partakes of her own handful before suddenly exiting the vehicle and running off into the near distant darkness, never to be seen again. It turns out that the Henderson marriage was afflicted by issues that weren’t always readily apparent to Dodge, who trudges shell-shocked to his already unfulfilling and now ironic job as an insurance agent the next day – the morning stand-up meeting announces several immediate internal openings for the minimally qualified, including Chief Financial Officer – beset by a world already crumbling about him and filled to the brim with people resetting their priorities in real time. After attending/escaping a potluck dinner party turned amateur bacchanalia* – at which a friend’s wife (Connie Britton) tries to fix him up with an overheated cougar before making her own surprise pass in the bathroom, while her husband (Rob Corddry) casually lights fireworks on the back patio and teaches their eight-year-old to sip vodka – Dodge meets cute his eccentric British neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) when she crawls through his living room window seeking her own temporary refuge. For some reason, Dodge doesn’t greet this interloper with the alarm that would have been appropriate a few days earlier, and a relationship of sorts is born.
*Part of the movie’s appeal comes from the indie comedy notables that pad out its cast in fun cameos – I noticed Patton Oswalt, Amy Shumer, Gillian Jacobs, Rob Heubel, Jim O’Heir, and T.J. Miller, and possibly missed others – whose presence helps smooth out the occasional rough or sleepy patch and for whose services Scafaria must’ve called in every favor she had handy. Mark Moses, famous as Duck Phillips on “Mad Men”, plays the local anchor whose mostly sober newscasts provide the movie’s loose connective thread up to (just before) the bitter end, while, back at the fatalist fiesta, Shumer arrives with a bag of heroin party favors and bargain basement lothario Oswalt makes a beeline, exclaiming, “Bucket List!”
So what exactly is Dodge to do with the rest of his life? An unexpected option presents itself in the twin revelations that Penny’s twitchy boyfriend has been receiving pieces of his neighbor’s mail by mistake for months, and that, upon inspection, the stack of contraband she returns contains a soul-bearing letter from Dodge’s own “one who got away”, a long-lost college paramour who confesses by way of parting that he was “the love of her life”. An impromptu expedition to explore this one good remaining possibility certainly seems preferable to the tedium of spending another workday on the phone explaining to morons the benefits of “end of the world insurance”. Penny, for her part, is driven by her far flung family, and the realization that she would much rather spend her last night on Earth with them than her goofy, shiftless boyfriend. Having fallen into each other’s orbits, the two embark on a meandering journey pointed, at least in theory, toward the fulfillment of their respective goals, shedding baggage and preconceptions along the way. From an architectural standpoint, Seeking a Friend maintains a base level of intrigue for much of its runtime by exploiting the tension between what movie convention dictates it must be and the less conventional detours it reliably takes whenever given the choice. We as viewers are never quite sure of what Dodge and Penny think of things, or each other, until we’ve made a judgement along with them. Can there possibly be the same investment in the “happily” component when “ever after” has been removed from the equation?
Seeking a Friend then is a fairly charming romantic road trip comedy, lousy with travel delays, detours, and whimsical digressions, that rarely overplays its hand or veers too hard in any one direction. Mild, friendly, and mired in inertia, Carrell’s understated Dodge uses the apocalypse as an occasion for some apparently much needed personal re-evaluation. Rarely of late have I found myself relating to a performance so intrinsically, so borderline uncomfortably. When the world fundamentally changes, I suppose it can’t help but change us as well. Penny presents as a standard-issue “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” of the sort that so often animates this kind of indie romp – (500) Days of Summer, et al. – but Knightley offers up several more wrinkles and plays the thrift store waif as open and quirky but essentially unknowable. Despite the two’s stated goals, there is an appealing aimlessness to their adventures together that just feels right, as they encounter both strangers on the road and sometimes equally strange prior acquaintances. These episodes have the overall feel of an unfinished sketch – or, rather, a series of them – with an elliptical quality that becomes an unexpected strength, a sort of marinade that seeps into the movie’s bones and subtly affects its flavor. The whole they congeal into is appealingly meditative, if you’re into that sort of thing, treating the various weirdos Dodge and Penny encounter as just so many fellow travelers, each also reconciling their place and rapidly dwindling time left to it in an intensely and necessarily personal way.
Global Armageddon is a “we’re all in this together” sort of business. Seeking a Friend, however, predates the rise of streaming services and therefore luckily escapes its lazy recent tendency toward serialization. If Scafaria had set out to write a traditional “will they, won’t they” sitcom, or a limited series on HBO or wherever, focusing on the week’s newest goofball like another castaway on Lost, the result would have been far different and greatly inferior. Her canvas is too infinite and too volatile. I’m grateful for her instincts. I’ll leave you to discover whether Dodge and Penny eventually got where they wanted, or what they wanted, or even if those two things aligned. It didn’t take too long for me to stop trying to reconnect with my ex, though I never forced myself to stop caring. I never sweated or regretted it, and moved on with my life, though I do currently have the one advantage in our respective travels that Dodge always lacked: a future. What person knows conclusively where they’ll end up? That card is always subject to change. With a ticking clock, life becomes simultaneously more and less complicated. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World argues persuasively that time well spent, time personally meaningful spent exploring the contours of your soul or connecting with the right person – be she the proverbial “Miss Right” or “Miss Right Now” – is more important than a preponderance of boxes on some checklist. The movie never truly hits fourth gear, let alone third, but, rather, ambles along in second for a time before simply…ending. If that feels abrupt, it’s worth questioning our expectations and asking what should have been more satisfying given the circumstances. Whether or not we leave Dodge and Penny better than we found them, I was glad to have met them, and to have seen the odd, wonderful, mundane, and unimaginable through their kind eyes.
They make good company, and they keep it. In the end, that’s enough.