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

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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).

It's here that the film begins to take a (sometimes clumsy) tonal shift from comedy to serious drama. At the end of the day, there's nothing really funny about the end of the world, and the laughs begin to drain out as the hourglass nears empty.

In films like this, the apocalyptic backdrop provides convenient nudging for characters to engage in whatever reflection a filmmaker wants from them, but it also is necessarily contrived and artificial. The challenge, if the goal is to make the exercise meaningful, is to keep these characters honest, even within the self-consciously false structure that's been built around them.

For an actor, this must be in some ways a variation on what performers in big special-effects movies must do physically. It's like an emotional green screen. Where the effects-movie actor moves on a soundstage while being told the general position, size, and shape of the dinosaur or alien that is attacking them, the apocalypse-as-metaphor actor imagines the ramifications on the psyche of the unseen doom approaching.

When Another Earth worked (which it did less for me than for a lot of viewers), it was largely on the strength of Brit Marling's heavily internal performance as a woman racked with guilt and wrestling with the possibility that another version of her who'd taken a different path was living happily up there somewhere. The planet of Melancholia in Von Trier's film is the big, overbearing metaphor for depression, but it's Kirsten Dunst's performance as the depressed that sells it, that makes that planet simply a manifestation of her own hopeless mind.

Scafaria is fortunate, then, to have Carell and Knightley here. Carrell's hit this territory before: There's a profoundly sad center to many of his comic characters, whether in Dan in Real Life and Little Miss Sunshine, or even The Office's Michael Scott. Here he plays a man wrestling with the connections (and lack thereof) that he's made and broken in his life, and his performance is understated and elegant, helping the movie along when it isn't quite as sure-footed.

Knightley, meanwhile, plays a free-spirited sprite who easily could have descended into lazy, Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl territory. Except that Penny doesn't exist in the movie's universe just to aid Dodge. These two poke at each other equally, and their odd-couple routine is just that: that of a couple, rather than a quirky girl awakening a dull guy. The genuine sweetness of the friendship that develops between these two wins out over any of the movie's failings

Perhaps the clustering of apocalypse films is a reflection of a prevailing climate of pessimism, or maybe it's the debunked-but-still-talked-about Mayan 2012 prophecy. But chances are films like these will always be with us. After all, as humans, this life is all we have. End-times movies have the potential to be so affecting because no matter how big the object coming to destroy us, nothing is bigger than the universe inside our own minds, and no gravitational pull feels as strong as the imagined ones we share with those we love most intensely.

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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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