97 – Seeking A Friend For The End of the World:
I don’t know what it is but I have a weird thing about comedies. When I was going through the first list of 100 films, I kept going on about how much I didn’t like them. While I am more likely to roll my eyes at a slapstick comedy’s trailer, I’m much more open to them these days. I didn’t realise I’d been in something called the Comedy Ghetto – where comedy in general is seen as an inferior form of entertainment. Given that there are plenty of comedies on my list, it’s safe to say I’m not in the Ghetto anymore. American Beauty advertised itself with the tag line ‘if you think a comedy can’t be moving, look closer’ – and that’s exactly what I’ve chosen to do with Lorene Scarfia’s directorial debut.
The movie opens by informing us that an asteroid is heading for Earth. The last mission to stop it has failed, meaning the world is doomed. Two people are in a car listening to this radio broadcast: Dodge, played by Steve Carell, and his wife Linda, played by his real life wife Nancy Carell. Upon learning that she has three weeks to live, Linda gets out of the car and runs away. After the main titles, we’re shown a montage of how the rest of the world is taking the impending doom. One guy is still working out at the gym, plenty of surfers are walking out in front of traffic, and people are even putting up flyers dropping the film’s title.
Dodge is an insurance salesman, so naturally he’s getting lots of calls to see if his insurance covers the end of the world as we know it. And apparently his company are offering executive positions to whomever wants to go out with a notch on their resume. Back in Dodge’s apartment, he finds his cleaning lady Elsa still carrying on as normal. He tells her she doesn’t need to come back, since y’know, the world’s ending. But somehow she interprets that as ‘come back next week anyway’. Later on, we see a news broadcast announcing that the final transatlantic flight has just left. Remember that. Dodge visits his friends Warren and Diane for a party. They’ve heard about Linda leaving him. And it seems that impending doom has fallen to all forms of tact, as they say they’re surprised she didn’t leave him sooner. But Diane wants to set Dodge up with their friend Karen, who arrives at the party wearing an interesting collection of décolletage.
It’s everything she never wore, which is probably how Lady Gaga would spend her last days. The dinner conversation has the various people talking about what they will do with the time they have left. These range from the negatives – telling hated relatives to eff off – and to slightly more positive – eating whatever they want without caring. The parents are even encouraging their kids to get plastered. Everyone starts doing heroin and setting off fireworks in the backyard. One guy has naturally been having endless amounts of one night stands with women who do not care anymore. Dodge isn’t keen on the last one though, especially when Diane makes a pass at him. He says he doesn’t want to spend the last month of his life getting to know someone.
So this whole sequence is incredibly cynical. And it’s also pretty harrowing. I mean, put yourself in the characters’ positions. The world is literally ending. There’s no hope of a future or any kind of rescuing. All people can do is simply wait until the time comes. And it’s one of those things that prompts you to think about what you particularly would do if this situation ever came. Maybe there would be these wild parties now that people don’t need to fear cops or annoyed neighbours. Maybe everyone would do a load of drugs or start screwing anyone in sight. It’s a pretty harsh and cynical way to examine the world. But I’m impressed that this film had the balls to go there, as opposed to other movies about the end of the world.
Dodge goes home and takes out a box full of keepsakes. Among them includes a harmonica – the instrument of tragedy. As if on cue, it summons his weeping neighbour Penny, played by Keira Knightley. Now as a bit of background info on Ms Knightley, we’ll be reminded that she was brought to national attention as Elizabeth Swan in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This had the effect of typecasting her as spirited young ladies in period pieces. For a while she starred in a series of films that seemed as if she were screaming “I’m not a corset queen” – King Arthur, Domino, The Jacket – but she eventually gave in and embraced her costume dramas. Here though she’s going radically against type. I’ll sum it up with her character’s big line:
If we need any further indication of what kind of girl Penny is, she tells us she missed all of the last planes home. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend and she’s giving him time to clear his stuff out. After offering Dodge some weed, she catches sight of the photo he was looking at. It’s of Olivia, his high school sweetheart, and the one that got away. But passing off this information that absolutely won’t be important later, Dodge and Penny both fall asleep in front of the TV. Penny’s a heavy sleeper and won’t be woken by the sounds of the TV or the vacuum cleaner. When she does wake up, she hands him the various mail that mistakenly got delivered to her apartment over the last couple of years. She also talks casually about his roommate and her boyfriend…
You can expect that Dodge is less than thrilled that his wife had been cheating on him for years. He buys some window cleaner and drinks it after a drunken walk in the park. It doesn’t kill him and he wakes up with a stray dog attached to him. It has a note reading ‘sorry’ with it, so he takes the dog home and names it Sorry.
As he’s walking home, he sees various hoodlums causing mayhem in the streets. Back in the apartment, he finds a letter among the mail Penny gave him. It’s from Olivia, his high school sweetheart. In it she tells him she’s divorced her husband and she’s wondering how he is. But this tender revelation gets interrupted as the hoodlums quickly turn into a rioting mob and advance on the apartment block. Taking Sorry with him, he climbs into Penny’s apartment and bumps into her ex-boyfriend Owen. He mistakenly assumes that Dodge has been sleeping with Penny and proceeds to entertain the shit out of me. For example he punches a wall in frustration…
Owen: Baby, I think I broke my guitar hand.
Penny: Aren’t they both your guitar hands?
But Owen’s entertaining-ness aside, Dodge rallies the two of them to get out of the apartment – but only after Penny gathers her records. Now there’s a girl with priorities. And as they’re taking Penny’s car, they of course have to run through the riots until she remembers where she parked it. All the while Owen is sniping at her. Unsurprisingly he gets left behind when Penny drives away from the rioters. Well after Dodge says he has a friend with a plane, but still. If I didn’t love the rest of the movie, I’d be more pissed that Owen got abandoned. Anyway Dodge and Penny prepare for their big long drive…
Well not that long, since Penny wasn’t listening in Drivers’ Ed when they said you need to put gasoline in the car to make it run. And since no one likes walking for too long, this prompts Dodge to chew her out for not giving him Olivia’s letter three months ago when it was delivered. Penny naturally feels horrible. I’m now remembering a scene from Keira Knightley’s first big film The Hole, where she had to cry dramatically and it ended up hilarious rather than heart-breaking. It seems that in between 2001 and 2012, Keira realised she could use that skill intentionally for comic effect. And she does it in this film a lot. She’s actually a fucking hilarious crier.
Penny however flags down a random passer-by with a pick-up truck and scores them a ride to Olivia’s hometown. And because she’s *that* kind of girl, she asks the driver to tell them his life story. None of the information is important, and we cut to the end of the story and the driver’s destination. As Penny and Sorry conveniently leave the car, the driver has apparently hired someone to assassinate him – and he’s mistaken Dodge for that guy. But – and I’m not sure if this is thankfully – the assassin is in the car behind them and does his job. Penny and Dodge bury the body, but realise at the worst possible time that they forgot to pick up the keys to the truck.
Once they’ve re-buried the body, it’s time for Dodge and Penny to have their first heart-to-heart. Dodge tells us a little about Olivia and what she was like. Penny also tells us she was a ‘serial monogamist’. But this talk is interrupted by an important sight on the side of the road.
Friendsy’s is a spoof of an actual restaurant chain called Friendly’s. As the name suggests, it’s a place where everyone is your friend. And it makes me want to round up all the moody and cynical people in my social circle, and just plonk them in there for fun. There’s a big party going on but they’re still serving food. Their waitress is clearly high and Penny is just going with all of this, even saying it’s Dodge’s birthday to get some extra treats. A conga line also passes by their table – and of course Penny has to get up and take part. Cut to the diners enjoying their makeshift orders and Dodge getting served a birthday cake. The waitresses even give him birthday kisses, and one looks ready to give a birthday hand job. This is too much even for Dodge and Penny, and they bit goodbye to Friendsy’s. Once back in the car, Penny initiates a kiss – telling Dodge she wants him to be her last.
Sometime later Dodge seems a bit guilty about doing it with a much younger woman, and tries to give her ‘the talk’ – but Penny assures him it was just sex. But that’s rendered irrelevant by a cop who wants to book them for speeding. Penny is reluctant due to the joint in her hand, but she pulls over nonetheless. She also has this to say when said cop tries to uphold the law:
“I didn’t get a chance to retrieve my identification before fleeing my home due to a deadly riot. However we were fortunate enough to hitch a ride with a very nice trucker, who it turned out had hired a hit man to assist him in a suicide – thus bestowing us with this beautiful mode of transportation. So the answer is no; no licence and registration here. But given the current situation with the [points to the sky] couldn’t you find it in your heart to set aside the law just this once and let us on our way? So that I can give my friend here the fighting chance of being with the one he loves before we all reach our untimely conclusion.”
Cut to Penny and Dodge getting possibly the last mug shots ever taken. They share a cell with one of those guys wearing a ‘The End Is Nigh’ sandwich board. Remorse is now catching up with Penny and she wails that she’s ruined both their lives. Conversation then switches to Dodge’s family – or lack thereof. His mother passed away and his father drove away, not to mention his wife recently running away. The last one is important, as he claims he got married solely because he didn’t want to die alone. He also says that the reason things didn’t work out with Olivia was because she wanted marriage and he didn’t. He finishes by assuring Penny that she didn’t ruin his life; he had a lifelong head start. He tops this scene off by playing his harmonica for them.
I think it’s time to talk about Steve Carell. The man got a rather late start to his career; mostly playing supporting roles in failed sitcoms and bit parts on various movies and TV shows. His big break – The 40 Year Old Virgin – didn’t come until he was forty three. Although he enjoyed plenty of success after that, he faced many of the issues that fall upon comedians. While his films did well, recognition from the Academy didn’t really come. Most comedians either just roll with the punches or else do a dramatic role to gain critical acclaim. Carell seemed to be doing this as early as 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, but has recently scored it with the drama Foxcatcher – if the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations are anything to go by. His role here is in between. It’s a comedy but he plays against type. Instead of being over-the-top, he’s more reserved in contrast to Penny’s wackiness. It’s an understated performance from Carell but he does it very well. Little things such as his facials and reactions to the madness going on around him sell it to me. It’s a very subtle art of comic timing that not a lot of people can get right. The straight man is usually the boring one in the cast, but Carell does a good job of making him funny without overdoing it.
A cop who isn’t insanely dedicated to his job walks in and frees them. He can’t drive them to Olivia’s home, but Penny settles for Camden since she dated a guy from there. They’re dropped off in an attractive middle class neighbourhood that is unfortunately not quite realistic…
But we meet Penny’s ex, a former military man called Speck. He and his boys have created a fallout shelter full of games consoles, flat-screen TVs, exercise equipment and six months’ worth of rations. There’s also a satellite phone, allowing Penny to call her family. And this time when Keira Knightley cries, it’s actually sad. This little scene is one of the bigger tear jerkers in such a dark comedy. Once you step back and realise that this is one of the last times that Penny will ever speak to her family…
Speck keeps the mood light by talking about his plans for after the end. It figures that with imminent doom approaching, there would be a few people believing they could survive it. Although this scene is played light-heartedly, there is a slightly disturbing undertone to it. For example, Speck and his friends spend their time acting as if there’s a chance they’ll survive the disaster. They keep themselves in a shelter and make plans that are sadly never going to come to pass. By contrast, Dodge and Penny are at least attempting to be with their loved ones and make the most of the time they have left. It ties into the moral from old Aesop: ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Dodge and Penny are making the hay even while the sun is going down. These guys however are telling themselves they’ll still be able to make hay when the sun is already down. Although hoping for a potential future is an optimistic point of view, it’s sadly just false hope. There will be a point while the asteroid is coming in, when Speck and the people he’s gathered in the shelter will finally realise that there won’t be a future for them. And they’ll all have regrets of things they wished they could have done instead. Moving on from this rather morbid notion, Speck lends Penny a car and sends them on their way.
After a cute discussion on what they will and won’t miss when the world ends, they arrive outside Olivia’s parents’ house. Nobody’s home and the door’s locked, so of course Penny punches a hole in the glass to get in. The girl clearly learned nothing from her night in jail. Cut to later when Penny has made some dinner for them and put a record player to good use. It’s time for a heart-to-heart where she talks about how in love her parents were. She excitedly talks about what she’ll do when she gets to see them again – all the things she kept putting off over the years. But although what she says is lovely, you can see it having a different effect on Dodge. Steve Carell subtly tells us that Dodge is suddenly realising that his time with Penny is almost coming to an end. He promised her a plane ride back to England to see her family, so she can be with them for the end of the world. And he’s sad that it’s something that makes her happy, because it unfortunately will have the opposite effect on him. It appears that the feeling is mutual, judging by the rather solemn look on her face when she finds a letter with Olivia’s address on it.
I’ll have to admit that I actually didn’t see this coming. Maybe it’s because of the huge age difference between the two actors. Maybe it’s because Steve Carell and Keira Knightley seems like the most unlikely pairing for an on-screen couple. Or maybe it’s because the film did such a good job of fooling us into thinking we were just watching a platonic friendship – when it was actually developing a romance. Admittedly I should have known. It’s a classic motivation switch; the whole ‘I start out wanting X but along the way I realise what I really want is Y’. And there’s also the fact that Olivia barely features in the story, so clearly the love interest is going to be the girl with the most screen time. It’s a cliché direction but I think the movie handles it quite nicely. Indeed I certainly nod and applaud when Dodge gets back into the car and drives away – saying he left Olivia a reply to her letter. Before Penny can get an answer out of him as to what’s changed, they stop the car as they see a bunch of people heading for a picnic on the beach.
Penny it turns out doesn’t need an answer, and she and Dodge share a kiss. The following scene of them going to the beach party is probably my favourite one in the movie. It’s something so simple – just a bunch of people having a good time on the beach – and yet it works so well. It’s like night and day to the party Dodge went to at the beginning. That party was the dark side of human escapism; the getting pissed to avoid confronting the truth, the doing something reckless because we don’t care anymore, the being self-destructive just to get a kick. The party at Friendsy’s was a similar deal – where everyone was trying to keep upbeat but there was just a hint of fakery under it all. In true three act fashion, the beach party is the contrast. It’s the people’s way of saying that yes the world is ending, but we can still be happy and make the most of the time we’ve got left. Instead of counting the time until it comes, these characters just take the time to enjoy each other’s company and actually enjoy themselves. It’s like how I used to get sad about my summer holidays coming to an end, and I’d resolve to do something big and fun at the end – to make the most of the time left. Or if your friend is to move away and you make sure to spend as much time with them as possible, rather than preparing for them leaving. There’s also a bittersweet tinge to this scene – especially when you take note of all the people on the beach. The babies who don’t know what’s really going on, and the children who will never grow up. The chord that resonates with this scene is precisely why I love this movie so much.
After the beach, Dodge takes Penny to see his friend with the plane. Said friend is none other than Martin Sheen. But perhaps more importantly, it’s Dodge’s father Frank. Naturally when Penny goes to freshen up, things get a little tense between father and son. At first Frank looks as if he wants to explain himself and apologise, but Dodge says it doesn’t matter anymore. So we get a montage of the three of them having dinner and Penny watching father and son bonding. This montage turns bittersweet as Dodge takes a sleeping Penny and loads her into the plane. He whispers “you’re the love of my life” before watching the plane take off. Unfortunately this scene does get undermined by one little detail. Take note of Frank’s plane.
Frank is planning to fly Penny all the way to England from there. A plane that small would be lucky to fly the length of the United States without stopping to refuel. So it’s more likely that Penny will get woken up by Frank accidentally crash landing, and she’ll spend her last days in a Castaway scenario.
Dodge drives home and is shocked to find his cleaning lady Elsa back there once again. This little bit is equal parts hilarious and heart-breaking (which sort of sums up this movie perfectly). The hilarious thing is of course that the world is ending and Elsa is still going to work and doing her usual routine, just like the cop who threw Penny and Dodge in jail. The sad thing however is that this of all things is Elsa’s way of coping. She acts as if everything is as it is normally, and just carries on. It’s probably because the idea that there is no tomorrow is too much for her to think about. So she throws herself into her work and just denies anything’s wrong. She even once again says “see you next week” despite knowing she’s seeing Dodge for the last time. That’s because the asteroid is announced to be arriving earlier than expected, according to the news broadcast. He also reminds everyone to set their clocks ahead for Daylight Savings Time.
All joking aside, the quick shot of the empty chair as the news goes off for the last time is yet another effective part of this movie. Dodge it seems will spend his last hours inside Penny’s apartment with Sorry, listening to her records until the power goes out. Yet again the movie floors us with something so simple: the very idea that you’ll never be able to turn the lights on, watch TV or listen to music ever again. But the mood actually perks up when…
Now as much as I would love to say that Penny turned the plane around solely because of her love for Dodge…let’s face it: she knew the other option was that plane going down in a watery explosion. Nonetheless the two spend their last moments simply lying on the bed together, Penny rattling off other personal details she hasn’t shared yet. As they hear banging from outside, Penny says she wished she’d met him ages ago. But Dodge assures her that they met at the right time. He happily says “I’m really glad I got to know you” and the movie fades to white.
I guess it’s a bit of a copout for me to speak against the Comedy Ghetto and have my first comedy on this list be more of a tragicomedy – but it still fits. The movie wouldn’t have its charm if it had been a straight-up end of the world drama. Audiences stayed away because they saw it as a chick flick with apocalyptic themes. That’s unfortunately a problem that falls on a lot of female-directed movies. But some people were able to look past that and see the movie for what it is: a tragic and yet beautiful story about how to spend your time when the world is ending. Rather than offering the characters a way out like 2012, Interstellar or I Am Legend, the movie right off the bat tells us everyone is doomed. But yet Dodge and Penny still end the movie happy and fulfilled. The love story is one we’ve seen before, but it was pulled off with certain style and grace. For example Penny isn’t just some sexy trophy there to reward Dodge at the end of 90 minutes. She’s a character with her own motivations and an established backstory. She’s also allowed to be funny and have an actual personality. Likewise Dodge isn’t just some gormless twat who sits around waiting for his Manic Pixie to save him; he takes charge of his own life and goes after a way to be happy. And the result is that the romance is a reward for both of them, rather than the obligatory way to end the story. Elsewhere the movie is an equally amusing and tragic look at a population whose days are numbered, and how they choose to cope with it. Movie, I’m really happy I got to know you too.
And now for the grades.
*Story? A rather basic romantic comedy with an apocalypse as some extra flavouring. Nothing we haven’t seen before but a few little things make it stand out. I chalk that up to being written and directed by a woman. B-
*Characters? Much like Hard Candy, it’s just the two leads for most of the movie. But Dodge and Penny are a lot of fun, and the various side characters that pop in and out are also quite memorable in their own way. A-
*Performances? Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are not the first choices you’d think of for a romantic comedy, and yet they work so unbelievably well. Ms Knightley shows a good flair for comic timing, and Mr Carell conversely shows the art of subtlety. A
*Visuals? Quite pleasant to look at. Nothing eye-popping, but some scenes such as the beach party are shot and framed pleasantly. Penny has some interesting wardrobe choices. B
*Special Effects? N/A
*Everything Else? A nice soundtrack to go with the story, and a surprisingly good blend of comedy and tragedy. B+
Following this will be a trip to the land of once upon a time, for Snow White & the Huntsman.