Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) – Review

Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an uneven road drama, with stuff that works and stuff that does not, but held together by great leading performances and a sincere narrative. The film is about Dodge, an insurance salesman who is abandoned by his wife in the final days before Earth’s destruction by the asteroid Matilda. Thinking about his high school sweetheart, Dodge decides he wants to find her before the world ends. Accompanying Dodge on his journey is his neighbor Penny, who wants desperately to get back to her family in England. She will help Dodge find his past love, and he will take her to a man with a plane. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria structures the film to be a fairly generic road film (though, it does its time to finally get on the road). Dodge and Penny run into strange characters and have misadventures as they make their way. The problem is that most of their encounters on the road are not particularly funny (when they are supposed to be) nor do they work particularly well. Rather, it is Scafaria’s buildup of the characters before they depart and their resolution (which takes up some of the second and the entire third act) after the road trip that is the film’s strongest aspect. The lead characters are both very well played and drawn, and it is in these two sections of the narrative that Scafaria gives them their best character moments. The film is trying to be a dramedy, with the comedy coming from the absurdity of modern humanity carrying on their day-to-day lives in the face of impending doom and the drama coming from the internal struggles of the characters as they come to terms with their own feelings about their lives and inevitable deaths. Scafaria does well with the drama and poorly (for the most part, though there are a few jokes that work well) with the comedy. Most of the random characters and situations that Dodge and Penny meet and find themselves in (clearly played for comedy) do not work and hamper the film’s pacing a bit. However, the character work is strong enough to save the film, and by the end make it quite compelling. Scafaria somewhat shifts the tone of the film, from being a dark comedy to being a drama, as the characters seem to find new meaning in their lives, and suddenly have more to live for and lose. Narratively, she also plays with the overarching structure, shifting it back and forth from character drama to romance, which balances the story by giving it both a lighter feel (along with the comedy) as we watch the characters come to terms with their feelings for each other and a more dramatic feel as the characters also address their own internal struggles. This saves the film from feeling overly generic, both tonally and structurally (I also like that Scafaria is not afraid to sick to her narrative convictions regarding the ending). Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, despite maybe wanting or trying to be, is not so much a quirky dark dramedy, but rather a good character drama that is held back due to some very uneven sections.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Lorene Scafaria makes her directorial debut with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (on her second produced screenplay). It is clear that she has a strong handle on getting good performances from her leads, as they are both fantastic and hold the film together. However, much like her first script Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Scafaria needs to work on tightening up her narrative structure and trimming (or reworking) the stuff that is flat or drags the narrative down. She has a good scene of humor, evidenced by some of the better jokes in the film, but again needs to realize that the film is playing better as a character drama than a quirky comedy and not force bad comedy bits in that detract from the overall momentum of the narrative just for the sake of comedy – it needs to come from a more organic place. I do look forward to her next film, as she clearly has talent and should improve. Composers Jonathan Sadoff and Rob Simonsen’s score is fine for the tone of the film, but the found music soundtrack overshadows it completely. Tim Orr’s cinematography is very straightforward, as is Scafaria’s shooting style. The actors are simply allowed to perform with the camera merely capturing their performances, which is fine given the strong performances. Chris Spellman’s production design is also fairly straightforward. His sets mostly match the characters, as continuations of their personalities. The supporting cast (made up of small bit roles) is very uneven. Some of the performances worked well, dramatically or comically, and some did not. The performances of Martin Sheen, T.J. Miller, Adam Brody, and especially Rob Corddry (whose performance is probably the funniest thing in the film) highlight these small roles. Keira Knightley plays Penny, who is somewhat written to be what film critic Nathan Rabin calls a manic pixie dream girl (or a stock character who does not exist in reality, but cinematically exists to teach male characters to embrace life). However, Knightley’s performance is much deeper than the stock character would seemingly allow. The film is also concerned with Penny’s internal drama and how she will come to terms with it, and she is not solely there to save Dodge (though, that is an aspect to her role). Knightley brings a lot of life to Penny and the film, and juxtaposed to Dodge, who Steve Carell plays to be a black hole, void of love, empathy or even caring, is a necessary component to making the film work (without her, or someone equally skilled, it would just be a drag). Carell can only be so down in the dumps because his negative energy can be bounced off of Knightley. He is also good in the film, playing his typical sad middle-aged character, but to a much more depressing degree.

Summary & Score: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a very good comedy or road movie, but is a great character drama with some strong performances from its leads. 7/10

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