Film & TV

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: The Dr. Strangelove of Rom-coms

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Focus Features)
With only three weeks to live, everyone faces the key question: What makes life worth living?

How’s this for a setup to a movie, the words intoned by a radio announcer heard by a stone-faced couple in their car:

Once again, if you are just tuning in, the CSA space shuttle Deliverance has been destroyed. The final mission to save mankind has failed. The 70-mile-wide asteroid known commonly as Matilda is set to collide with 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 Key 107.2. [The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” plays.]

It’s hard to say which of the black-comic elements in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is most apt. Maybe it’s an unctuous newscaster admonishing viewers to tune in to the “End of the World Awareness Concert.” Maybe it’s a manager telling employees it’s now okay to wear Casual Friday clothing “pretty much any day of the week.” Maybe it’s the glimpse of a newsmagazine presenting, for its final issue, a “Best of Humanity” cover story featuring Jesus Christ and Oprah Winfrey.

The film, which is available to stream on Netflix, has the broad contours of an especially contrived rom-com, but within that shape, it poses timeless and important questions. Steve Carell plays Dodge, a numb, depressed New York City insurance salesman who, as the apocalypse impends, meets a vivacious oddball of a neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), and embarks with her on a road trip searching for important figures from their past. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (her directorial debut), who at the time of filming was just 33, Seeking a Friend was ignored on its release in 2012; we’d rather not think too much about the scenario it considers, as opposed to the various popcorn-Armageddon films that present mass destruction as amusing digital spectacle.

What would life on Earth be like if it became known that our days as a species were numbered? Some, no doubt, would behave like Dodge’s implacable Latina cleaning lady. When he tells her he supposes it’s no longer necessary for her to come in each week, she is hurt: “You’re firing me?” He hastens to clarify that it’s okay with him if she continues to clean his house.

Others behave more erratically. Stores close. Some guys pump iron furiously. Others go surfing. Men consume their best cigars. A woman appears at a dinner party wearing a fur coat and a tiara: “It’s everything I never wore.” Children slurp martinis. Humanity is in a state of ultimate liberation, and there’s a giddy taste to the air: School’s out, forever.

Though no one in the film seems to be a practicing Christian, it is nevertheless sprinkled with Biblical references. The universal abandonment of restraint takes on an Old Testament tinge, a chilling decadence. Having been told there will be no deliverance in this life, most spurn any hopes for the next life as well and resolve to seize what fleeting delights they can. And so man falls into squalor and sin. All taboos are discarded. Riots break out. Heroin usage soars. Man seems to prove deserving of his damnation. As the INXS song “Devil Inside” plays amid orgiastic revelry, an unattractive little man played by the comic Patton Oswalt tells Dodge that this is an ideal, if too-brief, moment: “I been with a different girl every day and they don’t care about getting pregnant . . . or are you related. It’s like the apocalypse, the apocalypse has leveled the field, man.” End times prove a boon for hooking up.

And that’s where the brilliance of the film clicks in: What these characters are facing isn’t all that different from the human prospect in general. Most of us have, or think we have, more than three weeks to live, but the fundamental questions are the same. Should we live morally because we are afraid of being punished for transgressing, or because it’s right? Is there a deeper purpose to existence other than heedless hedonism? The near-universal turn to the sybaritic holds no appeal to Dodge. He yearns for meaning.

A typical Hollywood film would sort out some kind of earthly reckoning: rewards for the good people, comeuppance for the evildoers. But this isn’t a studio production. There is no way out for anyone, just as there is ultimately no escape from suffering for any of us. The scenario imagined in the movie is simply a mechanism for increasing the urgency of the questions we face.

Seeking a Friend distills an extreme situation to a breathtaking simplicity. Sharing time with loved ones is what gives purpose to carrying on.

“If you ask me, a man’s not supposed to know when his time is up. It’s not natural,” says a truck driver (William Petersen, one of many star cameos) who gives Dodge and Penny a lift. It’s a seeming throwaway line that carries freight; as man advances ever closer to perfect knowledge, he becomes ever more fretful and insecure about the purpose of life. Some of the most sophisticated people choose to reject the gift. Rather than dying naturally along with everyone else, the truck driver has hired an assassin to murder him.

Step by awful step, the world concludes its business. The last commercial flight lands, phone service ends, television goes dark. Amid the chaos, Dodge and Penny choose the ordinary — listening to vinyl records and having a kind of family dinner. As in Richard Curtis’s About Time (2013), on the surface a time-travel story that turns out to be another entry in the specialized subgenre of death-facing rom-coms, Seeking a Friend distills an extreme situation to a breathtaking simplicity. Sharing time with loved ones, Scafaria finds, is what gives purpose to carrying on. Carrying on as though catastrophe weren’t awaiting us all.

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