The Only Thing That Can Save an End-of-the-World Movie: Good Acting

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley help to ground the sometimes flighty Seeking a Friend for the End of the World by convincingly imagining how someone would act in the face of impending apocalypse.

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Last year, moviegoers watched as two planet-sized objects hurtled towards the Earth. One meant the end of the world as we know it; the other, just the end of the world. In Mike Cahill's Another Earth, a carbon copy of our planet approached from points unknown and ended up taking up orbit in the sky, as those on our world discovered that the twin Earth had alternate versions of themselves. Lars Von Trier's extended metaphor on the nature of depression, Melancholia, had a more apocalyptic finality: that film's eponymous globe didn't put on the brakes as it neared, slamming squarely into Earth like a cue ball on the break.

For an actor, the world's looming end is like an emotional green screen, providing a mental challenge akin to the physical one facing performers in big special-effects movies.

These were films with massive potential cosmic cataclysms, but they weren't really about the cataclysms themselves. Armageddon: Now there's a movie where a cigar is just a cigar, where the huge asteroid on an intercept course with the planet is nothing more and nothing less than what's advertised. But those two films last year used the uncertainty and impending doom of their heavenly bodies as a catalyst for examining what goes on inside much tinier globes: our own heads. That's also the case for the directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

As the film opens, an Armageddon-style rescue mission is failing: Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife sit parked in their car, listening to a radio announcer reporting on the catastrophic defeat of a shuttle mission to divert an asteroid currently on track to collide with the Earth. With that failure, the countdown starts on the last 21 days before all life on the planet is eradicated. Dodge's wife opens the door and runs away, never to be seen again.

Scafaria spends much of the first half of the film having fun with this what-if scenario. Just what would happen to our day-to-day lives if the entirety of existence had a kitchen timer ticking its way to the ding of oblivion? How long would people still go to their jobs? How long would the news broadcasts continue? When would the rioting start? Would middle-class suburbanites get their kids drunk and try out heroin and orgies just for the hell of it? All of these questions are addressed with a gleefully irreverent eye towards the gallows, including the movie's central question: Are love, companionship and family cold comforts in the waning moments of our lives, or something significant and meaningful?

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Nearly everyone in the film is grappling with this problem in their own way. Patton Oswalt cameos as an opportunistic schlub sleeping with a different woman every day, claiming that the apocalypse has leveled the playing field for formerly loveless cretins like himself. Diane (Connie Britton) wants to fix Dodge up with her desperate friend Karen (Melanie Lynskey) so that he won't have to die alone. Her husband Warren (Rob Corddry), has a more existential attitude: Dodge won't die alone, he'll just die with everybody else. Warren is also constantly drunk and feels more love for the rare cigars he plans to spend his last days smoking than for his wife or family.

But Dodge ends up fleeing the city with his downstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who has just broken up with, reconciled, and re-broken up with her slacker of a boyfriend. Dodge wants to go find the one that got away, Penny wants to find a way to get back to England to see her family (all commercial air traffic has been grounded).

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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