Before the world does in fact end, you might want to track down a copy of 1998’s Last Night. The perfect Canadian retort to the bombastic Deep Impact and Armageddon of the same year, it was a relatively calm and, well, very Canadian ensemble piece about how various people responded to imminent global doom. If you haven’t seen it, you can be sure Lorene Scafaria has. She wrote and directed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, an American companion to Last Night, and addresses many of the same issues as the earlier film. People rioting? Check. People diving into desperate orgies? Check (in both films, this is presented as less erotic or explicit than pathetic). People trying to decide whether to spend their last days alone or with loved ones? Check. I’m glad Lorene Scafaria seems to have watched and enjoyed Last Night, but most of her own film is a sweet but dithering road trip involving sad sack Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) and flighty life force Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley) as they Learn What Really Matters.
Despite Carell’s presence, this isn’t a comedy. He handles himself elegantly in drama, as always, though he seems an odd match for Knightley, who seems to be visiting from a different movie. She’s not bad, but her character is unformed, defined almost entirely by commitmentphobia. These two meet on the rebound — Dodge’s wife has left him, Penny has dumped her boyfriend — and, with planetary death by asteroid less than a month away, decide to leave New York so that he can reconnect with a lost love and she can catch a plane to her parents in England. With an abandoned dog named Sorry in tow, they hit the road, rather unconvincingly escaping a riot-torn New York unscathed. Almost every scene in which they encounter strangers or old friends feels synthetic, except for a bit in a restaurant called Friendsy’s where the waitstaff are so rabidly convivial they seem insane.
Fortunately, Scafaria has cast the supporting roles deftly; in an early party scene we get Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, and Melanie Lynskey, all unhinged to a greater or lesser extent by what’s coming. We’re happy to see them, but they know they’re not going to be in the movie very long, so they lunge at their moments aggressively, resulting in an atypically coarse and cartoonish turn from the usually dependable Oswalt. Community’s Gillian Jacobs turns up in the Friendsy’s bit, and Derek Luke appears in the movie’s falsest scene as a survivalist who just hands Penny (an ex of his) the keys to one of his cars. Often, the film seems to tiptoe up to something potentially scary or disturbing and then backs away fast.
I don’t have to tell you Last Night did this smarter and better, do I? There’s even a bit in which Dodge, an insurance salesman, talks to a client on the phone about “the armageddon premium,” and all I could think of was a scene from Last Night in which David Cronenberg played a power-company owner who kept calling his customers to assure them the heat wouldn’t go off. Anyway, why is anyone bothering to call insurance companies? As Tom Lehrer put it in his classic nuclear-apocalypse ditty “We Will All Go Together When We Go”: “No one will have the endurance/To collect on his insurance/Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go.” Dodge’s phone should be silent, not ringing off the hook as we see here. The bit in Last Night, with Cronenberg’s gentle words of reassurance, fleshed out an idea we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. In Seeking a Friend you have panicky idiots calling an insurance company for … what?
“And we will all go together when we go,” Lehrer also sang; “What a comforting fact that is to know.” That’s an idea more sophisticated than anything in this movie: that there’s some solace in the fact that in the end we are all paper in fire, ashes, extinguished, all equal finally. Rob Corddry does get a line about how nobody’s going to die alone because we’re all going to bite it at once. For the most part, though, Seeking a Friend could as well be a seize-the-day bucket-list flick about two dying people on the road, learning belatedly to embrace life. And, of all things, the plot device of the dog made me mad (especially since he’s more or less ignored for most of the film, and doesn’t have any bearing on the story other than to give the characters a cute dog to cart around). Who would abandon a dog at such a time? If that were my dog I’d fatten him on whatever food he wanted and play ball in the yard with him until the asteroid hit.