Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Cinema File #13: "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" Review

I had this idea for an anthology TV show once called T-Minus Ten. The idea was that we'd find out the end of the world was upon us in ten years, and there was nothing we could do to stop it, and each episode would follow a different character or set of characters as their lives change as a result of the news. We'd show different people at different points in the last decade of human history, some stories just following the discovery, others near the end, and more in the middle. I could never get the idea to work enough in my head to actually sit down and write a pilot outline, and I think I finally know why. I just finished watching the indie romantic comedy "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," a movie that for all its initial charm, really points out the flaw in telling a story where the end is so definitive from the beginning.

The story ramps up the impending apocalypse to about a month away, the result of an unstoppable asteroid, and we follow a man who never bothered to try for the life he wanted, and somewhat listlessly finds himself on an adventure to re-connect with his highschool sweetheart before the end, with a plucky optimistic British neighbor along for the ride. Gee, I wonder what could possibly happen between them along the way. It starts strong, as we see how various people react to the idea of their inevitable deaths, most giving up all pretense of social niceties and indulging in hedonistic excess. Patton Oswalt shows up for a cameo that probably ranks as the funniest part of the film, but after the set-up, I find myself wanting more of the wacky side characters and less of the main story, which you can basically plot out in your head as soon as the two leads meet and the road trip segment of the movie takes off.

It might sound silly to say that a movie all about certain doom is predictable, but my god is this movie predictable. I don't just mean the main gimmick of the movie, but the whole conceit of two people, a man and a woman off on a cross country adventure, starting out with separate goals that change and merge once they become a part of each others' lives. It plays out in such a by the numbers fashion that the morbidly funny premise and occasionally humorous exploration of it cannot sustain the narrative. I couldn't spoil this movie if I wanted to, because if you've seen the trailer for it or read any possible synopsis of it, you know exactly how its going to go and how its going to end, for the characters as well as, obviously, the world. If you have been reading up to this point, you probably already saw the movie in your head without even trying. They try to wedge in a surprise new dimension at the last minute with Martin Sheen, but as much as I love the guy and think he makes any movie ten times better (much like Mechani-Kong), the plot pivot is over so quickly, amounts to really nothing save a last minute head fake as to whether things will turn out relatively alright, and ultimately it just seems forced. 

Everyone involved does okay considering. Carell and Knightly are fine as the two leads, even if the obvious path of their relationship made me unable to really care about either of them. They're both charming enough, Carell as a man in search of meaning, and Knightly as the magical pixie girl who can pull him out of his stupor with her awkward eccentric cuteness, but then, just writing that sentence has me exhausted. The rest of the cast is devoted mostly to cameos, most of which are reasonably amusing, in particular Rob Cordray as the suddenly nihilistic best friend, William Petersen as a terminally ill truck driver, and Community's Gillian Jacobs as a stoned waitress. Its not that the film we have is necessarily bad, it just feels like there could have been so much more. It plays around with the darkness implied in it's premise just enough to make the comparatively boring lighthearted main story that much more uninteresting. Take away the asteroid and the unique setting it creates, and you've seen this movie a million times before. It seems strange in retrospect to follow the only two characters who insist on not doing things all that differently despite how much their circumstances have changed. By the half way point, I really wanted to know how Cordary or Oswalts' characters spent their last days instead. At least then the movie would have had a few more twists and turns.

I think that's the main problem I have with this movie, it took such an interesting idea, one with a lot of storytelling potential, and chose to tell probably the least interesting possible story with it. As a result, the need for a simple, understated story of two strangers finding comfort in each other inevitably clashes with the more darkly absurd tone the movie naturally falls into whenever not directly focusing on the two protagonists. Those side moments are all generally fun to watch, so much so that the main story just gets in the way of all the little touches that I genuinely liked. Said little touches were only just enough to keep me going, and I found myself at the end forced to say that as powerful as the ending might have been considering what is happening to these characters as their world literally ends, the build up and lack of reason to invest myself emotionally saps whatever potential impact the conclusion might have had.

In a lot of ways, this movie reminded me of another Carell movie, Dan In Real Life. Its low pressure, lighthearted, and pleasant, without being offensively shallow of bad, but at the end of the day, doesn't really amount to much or effect me in any meaningful way. The problem is, Dan In Real Life didn't have a fucking asteroid in it. It's okay to be just okay if the biggest stakes in your movie are some guy not getting the girl he just met and kinda likes. When the end of the world is promised in the first five minutes and all we get is this, I can't help but feel cheated. I don't entirely regret watching it, I certainly don't wish I had the time back as I do with, say, The Watch, but it shouldn't be this easy to imagine a better movie. I've got a couple straight to DVD schlocky ones next in my queue, so I'm guessing that barring some surprise diamond in the rough, this will probably look a little better by the end of the night. Maybe.

Unless of course the world ends by then. If so, personally I'm betting on an Arachnoquake before an Asteroid.

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