How many doomsdays can fill our movie nights before we decide that enough is enough? “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” doesn’t stop to find out whether we’ve had our fill. The feature shouts “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” and plunges headfirst into showing us the inhabitants of a few towns — if the world is ending for everyone, our self-absorption certainly isn’t aware of it — running around like Chicken Littles with their heads cut off.
Dodge, a bland, middle-aged insurance salesman played by Steve Carrell, shuffles along through life in a numb daze as everyone around him throws caution to the wind and does whatever they want. Everyone finally gets their no-holds-barred revelry on when there’s no such thing as a future looming over them. With most people choosing flight over fight in “End of the World,” it comes as no surprise when Dodge’s wife flies the coop upon learning than an asteroid dubbed Matilda is set to collide with Earth in a matter of weeks.
“This is the Last Supper, Dodge. Do you think Jesus was sober for his last supper?” asks Dodge’s friend Warren at the beginning of the most devil-may-care dinner party these relatively well-off middle-classers can devise. There are children encouraged to “Drink, drink, drink!” as if at some stereotypical fraternity kegger. Patton Oswalt drunkenly insinuates he’s had sex with members of his family. Somewhere in the milieu of the madness, someone shouts, “Put some Radiohead on; I want to do heroin to Radiohead!”
The pre-apocalyptic world operates predictably, with the occasional looting coming onto the screen to remind us that the world is, in fact, ending. If it weren’t for those small reminders, we’d simply believe everyone had gone insane, either in denial of the imminent end or otherwise so reckless as to seem like a joke. The most ridiculous of all, perhaps, is Dodge’s neighbor Penny — an expat English girl with a frizzled bob haircut and a joint tucked behind her ear for an easy high. We learn that she’s ridiculous by virtue of being eccentric; Matilda the asteroid has only enhanced Penny’s perennial peculiarity. “I could sleep through the apocalypse,” she says early in the film, and we laugh at the wordplay. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria clearly enjoyed writing her pointed humor, and we enjoy it too — or, at least, we enjoy it when we don’t feel like the movie is following a summer drama-comedy formula.
It makes sense to view “End of the World” in this formulaic light. What is Dodge but a rehash of Frank Ginsberg from “Little Miss Sunshine?” Both men are dejected after losing their significant other and both embark on a road trip. It’s the proverbial journey of self-discovery.
The difference is Penny. Keira Knightley plays the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG). It’s a staple that quirky films employ ad nauseum. The MPDG is a cinematic phenomenon whereby a beguiling and idiosyncratic, original and oh-so different and charming girl teaches her brooding male opposite about life and happiness through her refreshing personality. Penny is that girl. She wears an olive green parka — the ubiquitous uniform that the questionably hip wear as a badge of honor. She rushes out of her room clutching records to her chest, shouting, “Oh, goodbye, friends!” to the vinyl she left behind, channeling Penny Lane from 2000’s “Almost Famous.” She’s neurotic. She loves passionately. She dates bum guitarists and says of herself: “I’m not cynical; I’m clinical. I’m a recovering serial monogamist.”
What she should’ve said is that she’s a big, glaring cliche. Scafaria, writer of that other quirky flick, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” makes a hackneyed attempt at originality in Penny. Despite Knightley’s acting chops, there’s a sort of dissonance in her portrayal, perhaps precisely because of her skill. When Penny and Dodge drive around in a yellow truck to find Dodge’s high school sweetheart and get Penny to an airplane so she can visit her family — the yellow truck itself a recycling, at least in my mind, of the yellow Hummer from 2009’s post-apocalyptic (as opposed to pre-apocalyptic) “Zombieland” — we don’t warm up to her as we should.
But “End of the World” asks us to suspend belief. So what if Penny is a generic stock character posturing as original? What matters is that Dodge, lonely and sad, believes her to be a bit of salvation in the midst of destruction. When one faces the end, we’re left naked, dropping the pesky past, pretenses and the parka of persona embodied by Penny’s green jacket. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” may not be original, but it’s a fun summer feel-good comedy. The sky may be falling, but it leaves us feeling at peace.
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