Friday 13 July 2012

Last embrace: "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"

There's always someone worse off than you. Take Dodge (Steve Carell), the hero of Lorene Scafaria's apocalyptic romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: he's just seen his wife walk out on him three weeks before the world is set to be obliterated by a rogue meteor. "You'd think a lifetime of waiting for the worst to happen would have prepared me for this," he mopes, before setting about numbing the pain with liberal swigs of cough syrup and window cleaner solution. Then his lissom, recently dumped next-door neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) is spotted sobbing on their shared balcony, and - what do you know? - Dodge finds himself with renewed reason to live, no matter that the final seconds of life itself are rapidly counting down.

Scafaria - who previously wrote the rather sweet Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - mines a rare seam of cosmos-black comedy from her muddle-headed earthlings' diverse reactions to imminent catastrophe: the film's very title derives from a wall of flyposters offering such last-minute services as "Hire an Assassin" and "Fuck a Virgin". Amid a more generalised reaching out, there is a lot of last-minute fucking going on here, compounding Dodge's chaste misery. Casual sex enjoys a momentary renaissance, any worries about STDs or longer-term labour pains having been curtailed. Some get Biblical, welcoming this Rapture. Others get carefree, setting their kids to drinking hooch. The smiling staff at a corporate chain restaurant are revealed to be a conformist sex cult. It is as it has always been, only more so: we are all helpless, the film proposes, driven by desires - and at the mercy of forces - that we simply cannot control. And then Scafaria will cut to somebody throwing themselves off a roof, in a bid to perk us all up. Suffice to say, it's an odd one.  

Seeking... has one precedent, in 1998's Canadian drama Last Night, which similarly played out the final days for droll snickers, and to a soundtrack of classic hits - but then you were probably expecting that film to be a little weird and Canadian, whereas you probably aren't expecting existential despair from what, on the surface, looks to be nothing more challenging than a shiny Steve Carell-Keira Knightley romcom. Of those unlikely meteor-crossed lovers, one has the suspicion the project ended up with A-listers who were merely (the only ones?) prepared to take a punt on something this offbeam, rather than actors especially suited to these roles, but the film gets by regardless. 

We continue to mourn the loss of the funny Steve Carell - killed off by the giganto-flop Get Smart, though occasionally revived in his chatshow appearances to promote films that instead employ him as an ordinary Joe - but he gets something of the script's melancholy and wistfulness, and is an accomplished enough performer to construct quietly, strangely touching relationships with everyone up to and including Dodge's cleaning lady. Knightley, for her part, again displays her increased willingness to screw her face up like paper and play mucky and kooky rather than porcelain-demure, though I appreciate the redemptive-kook thing is a taste more readily acquired by male viewers (who may have cause to feel we need one, from time to time) than by females (who tend to be less sympathetic to the Knightley cause anyway). 

There is something to be said in favour of any film that starts with the Beach Boys and ends with Scott Walker - not least that its director knows how to use music - and as its characters bond over Bacharach, while the rest of the world is partying to (gulp) Wang Chung, interesting themes rear their head: not just about our need to connect (even in the direst and most tenuous of circumstances), but about the manner in which our ability to connect is shaped by our parents - and here, for once, Scafaria includes her heroine's folks, as well as her hero's. 

If there's an obvious (and revealing) flaw with Seeking..., it's that this particular connection is more tentative than it should be. Scafaria acknowledges that Carell-Knightley sex is a weird idea with a discreet fade to black at the moment of their mid-film consummation, and the nagging sense is that casting two performers closer together from the off - in age, looks, temperament - would have better sold the film emotionally. It's typical of how this project has been scaled up past the point of maximum effectiveness, made counter-intuitively bright by the deployment of some typically lustrous Tim Orr cinematography, when really Scafaria should have stuck to her guns, and clung to the desperate, the grimy and the black. As a left-of-centre multiplex option, the film still functions well enough to make you want to give your companion a consoling hug (or more) on the way out, but it might have made an even better indie flick along Monsters or In Search of a Midnight Kiss lines, perhaps retitled Hire An Assassin or Fuck A Virgin.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is in cinemas nationwide.

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