I don’t remember the last time I cried during a movie, but I cried through the last half-hour of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, who also wrote Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. The movie, which stars Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, is literally about the end of the world, lost love, and finding the right one before it’s too late.
An asteroid is hurling through space on a collision course with Earth, and most people are doing what they’ve never allowed themselves to do – promiscuous unprotected sex, hard drugs, etc., but not Dodge, played with understated angst by Steve Carell. As Dodge and his wife, Linda, listen to a radio announcer say that all efforts to stop the asteroid have failed and the world will end in one month, Linda bolts from the car, never to return. Dodge then goes home his empty apartment alone, unsure what to do for the next four weeks.
One evening his neighbor, a free-spirited young woman named Penny played by Keira Knightley, collapses in tears on the fire escape outside his living room window. He opens the window and as he holds her, she reveals her sadness over missing the last plane home to see her parents in England. The world is over and there are no more chances for a girl who is perpetually fifteen minutes late.
Penny, who sleeps like a hibernating bear, lives downstairs from Dodge. For the last three years, Penny has been saving mail addressed to Dodge that was accidentally delivered to her mailbox. When he takes her home to her apartment, she hands him the mail, which contains a letter from an old sweetheart, Olivia, who tells Dodge he was the love of her life.
When a full-blown riot breaks out in front of their apartment building, Dodge saves Penny, who has a car. Dodge promises to get her to someone he knows who owns a plane if she will get them out of harm’s way, and off they go on the shortest road trip in history.
I have grown to like Steve Carell as a semi-serious actor. As Dodge, he is always in control of his emotions, even when circumstances would enrage someone else. Dodge is a man who has played it safe all his life, but as his friend’s wife says, you can’t get away from this. He is a man who “likes a safety net” living in a world about to explode and there is nowhere to hide. Dodge chooses resignation over anger, and Carell’s quiet performance conveys his acceptance.
Knightley’s Penny is a 28-year-old woman who has lived her whole life taking people for granted, putting men before family, and finding out too late what she’s missed. Knightley infuses Penny with an intelligence that shines through her character’s capricious personality, and we can see why Dodge chooses to stay with her, even after he finds the house of his former love. It is Penny who suggests they find Olivia, the woman from the letter, and slowly brings him out of his shell as they journey through what looks like New Jersey. Eventually he falls for her and in a grand gesture of love, sacrifices what would be their last precious hours together by sending her to be with her family in England on the promised plane.
During the course of the movie, we see how people react to the prospect of having no tomorrow. What would you do? Some, like a trucker played by William Peterson, pay a hit man to take them out when they least expect it, others stay in a drug or alcohol induced stupor. There are also those that continue on with their lives as though nothing has changed, like Dodge’s housekeeper, Elsa, who continues to show up for work even when Dodge tells her she doesn’t have to. Elsa must believe next Wednesday will arrive and she still will be here to clean his house.
I have to mention the music in this movie. Penny loves her vinyl record albums and grabs an armful before leaving her apartment the night of the riot. One is an old Herb Alpert record with the song This Guys in Love with You. Even though Herb couldn’t sing worth a damn, the record was amazing, and I loved hearing it again. There was also Wouldn’t it be Nice (ah), Dancehall Days, and The Air That I Breathe (sigh).
I’ve been told that I don’t just watch a movie, I get inside and live there, so it was no surprise when I broke into tears as Dodge puts a vinyl record on the turntable, lays down, and resigns himself to his imminent death while the Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore enfolds him. He isn’t alone; he has a dog with him, but it is the end, and there is no reprieve. The quietness of this movie, done without explosions or fire falling from heaven, is what made it so powerful. I really felt as though the world was coming to an end and I cried.