Sunday, October 13, 2019

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Director Lorene Scafaria (middle) with actors Steve Carell and Keira Knightley

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD            C                    
USA  Singapore  Malaysia  Indonesia  (101 mi)  2012  ‘Scope d:  Lorene Scafaria

Another end of the world, apocalyptic fantasia, which are all the rage nowadays, usually offering *a big setting* to cover up for surprisingly banal human interest stories, and this one written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is no exception.  Certainly one problem is that the risks that used to represent indie films, both in subject matter and casting choices, have been replaced by standard, Hollywood formats that are simply cheaper and less expensive to make.  Fewer risks means more conventionally safe choices, like the casting decisions to star the ever downbeat Steve Carell, once again playing a somewhat embittered, anti-social character with few friends, and Keira Knightley as the more gregarious, overly friendly neighbor, where the two bump into one another with only a matter of days left on earth, as an approaching asteroid is expected to collide, all but guaranteeing the end of life on earth.  But this bit of news is treated comically, where Carell’s wife runs out of the car upon hearing the news, as she can’t wait another second to leave him.  Television news updates remind us of the planet’s impending doom, where airports, railways, and other needed services quickly shut down, where rioters and looters fill the streets, causing mayhem, but Carell barely flinches, continuing to lead his miserablist life exactly as he did before.  Where’s the fun in that?  While there may be a few scenes that reach for some dramatic moment, Carell and Knightley barely scratch the surface in delivering any degree of emotional complexity.  And therein lies the problem, if the stars of the film are known entities, where the audience sees them in another familiar role where they continue to play themselves, it’s hard to believe them as anyone else, which this storyline most desperately needs.  Fresh faces would have helped, but the film would likely have remained unfunded without the Hollywood star power. 

There are quirky moments of clever writing, where inventive set-ups or unexpectedly off-beat characters might have energized the film, like the sequence at Friendly’s Restaurant, still open for business while everything else is closed, where the loosey-goosey atmosphere of exotic drinks, affectionately friendly wait staff, open pot smoking, and an everpresent conga line turns into a delightful end of the world orgy sequence, which really only gets started when our more straight-laced couple flees the scene in disgust.  One can imagine Thomas Hayden Church in the role, and he would not be running out the door.  It is precisely this mainstream element of moral conservatism that ruins the movie, as the film itself, and especially Carell, take themselves so seriously that it is nearly entirely personality free.  So the film isn’t half as much fun as it was originally intended to be.  Failing miserably is an early party sequence where Carell’s friends try to hook him up with an attractive girl, Melanie Lynskey, but he’s too self-absorbed to notice or care.  Instead, the focus becomes how absurdly ridiculous the party is itself, where since it’s the end of the world, people break out into shooting heroin, “Oh, I want to do heroin to Radiohead.”  In an out of the blue moment, Carell finds Knightley crying outside his windowsill, where she throws her arms around him when he asks if everything is all right, where he offers temporary consolation for her break-up with a dumbheaded boyfriend.  But as the streets rage out of control with more services shutting down, Carell grows ever more reclusive and morose, as he literally has nobody, which is a depressing way to spend your final days.  What alters this tailspin is Knightley actually giving him several months worth of misdirected mail, one of which is a plea to see him from an old high school girlfriend.  This sets into motion a new chain of events, as this gives him a targeted goal, along with Knightley who misses her family.

Leaving the flaming streets behind, Carell and Knightley embark on a road trip together, but of course, as there’s no gas stations open, they don’t get very far.  Not to worry, as William Peterson, in a hilarious cameo, stops to pick them up in his truck, telling them the entire story of his life en route, which takes a sudden unexpected turn that is among the best moments of the film.  The rest is a series of what are supposed to be kooky or eccentric moments together, where they get arrested by a zealously over-ambitious officer (Bob Stephenson), run into an over-controlling survivalist (Derek Luke), and then go on a house hunting chase where they continually seek out people in upscale mansions or expensive estates which, if no one is at home, they can use as their short-term living quarters.  This bit of pretense is not lost on the audience, as while the world is coming to an end, where water and electric power are in short supply, these two are living in an aristocratic style of luxury, showing little to no regard to the actual day to day horrors of staying alive, where people around them are likely already dying in droves, but instead they’re lost in a dreamworld about how to spend their final days, as if planning a vacation, wondering how they might want to fill their final hours, checking off activities as if they were passengers on a cruise ship.  While the director tries to keep it personal, where the story is and has always been between these two people, using the dire apocalyptic surroundings simply for a diversion, the lack of spark between the two leads never adds up.  This script itself likely attracted this cast, as it’s not without merit, while the cinematographer is David Gordon Green’s longtime friend Tim Orr, so there’s plenty to like, but the direction itself never rises to the occasion, maintaining its position as an occasionally offbeat, but overly predictable mainstream Hollywood movie disguised as an indie film.   

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