What does it mean to ‘love’ a movie? I believe it stands separate from merely enjoying a film, or finding numerous critical strengths to praise. The movies we love aren’t necessarily the films we find faultless, or even the ones we study as exalted examples of what the medium can achieve. No, to love a movie is something different. It is to feel joy and exhilaration in every fiber of one’s being while watching, an experience where the world of the film exists beyond the celluloid. It envelops you, inspires you, makes you feel every possible emotion a movie can arouse, and leaves you feeling whole and fulfilled when the end credits roll. The movies we truly love are our benchmarks, the standards of hope we hold dear in our hearts and minds whenever we sit down to face another fresh screen.
I say this so you will understand the full impact of my following words: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is a movie I love. I am unabashedly, unashamedly head-over-heels in love with every inch of this beautiful movie. I cannot guarantee you will feel the same way, nor can I necessarily explain the breadth of my admiration in the confines of a written review. The film connects with me on deep levels far outside the range of critical analysis, and the best I can do is explain the literal, conscious reasons I am smitten with it.
The film defies genre classification, so I would describe it as an apocalyptic character study framed through the philosophical lens of absurdism. That last term is apt for two reasons: First, it underlines the style of the comedic moments woven throughout an otherwise dramatic narrative, and second, it succinctly explains the film’s core philosophical debate.
A meteor is heading towards Earth; when it arrives, it will collide and destroy the planet, ending all life as we know it. A manned space mission to save the day, a la Armageddon, has failed due to basic human error, and now humans are left to ponder the abject silliness of their own institutions. Jobs. Money. Law-enforcement. Television. Insurance. Without a future, all the basics of our day-to-day, monotonous existence no longer have any meaning. Yet we have spent so long defining ourselves through them that, for many, life itself becomes meaningless. We base our personal definitions on what we believe is eternal, but when we have put our faith in the finite, what do we have to show for it?
This is the subconscious dilemma protagonist Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) finds himself in at the film’s outset. His wife has left him, and all he has left is his now thoroughly pointless insurance job and a comfortable apartment. He is a lonely man, largely bereft of friends and family. As those around them search for ways to cope, from the silly (throwing dinner parties) to the hopeless (jumping off a building), Dodge wanders aimlessly, going about his normal routine with a mounting sense of dread and regret. He has nothing to believe in; the world, and his life, seems utterly meaningless.
But if absurdist philosophies about life’s lack of worth provide the starting point for the narrative, the film’s action is driven by a quest to find something worth living for. Dodge receives a letter from his long-lost love, Olivia, the ‘one who got away.’ Compelled to find and see her one last time, he strikes a deal with next-door neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), a woman who, like Dodge, experiences similar feelings of lifelong regret. With planes having stopped flying, she has no way to make it home to England to see her family one last time, but if she drives him to see Olivia, Dodge promises to take her to an old friend who owns a private plane.
From there, the general narrative and thematic arc is not necessarily surprising. It is no spoiler to say that Dodge and Penny fall in love, and that in each other, they find the meaning they have been looking for and the strength to face the apocalypse. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay is so brilliant, and Carell and Knightley give performances of such staggering depth and authenticity, that this simple story comes to life in ways I can scarcely describe.
Movies have taught us, over and over again, that love is the answer to life’s great mysteries, that romance is a healing solvent we must all try to find; Seeking A Friend is one of the only films I’ve ever encountered that makes me truly believe it. Watching Dodge and Penny interact, in any given situation, is not only a profound joy, but an intensely insightful one. Their relationship speaks to things we all search for on a daily basis: Acceptance, companionship, comfort, laughter, shared sadness, understanding, sympathy, etc. Love is made up of all these things and more. We can only say we ‘love’ when we find them all in another person, and this process of discovery is, in truth, a subtle and nuanced one. Scafaria understands this. Carell and Knightley understand this. The romance doesn’t blossom in broad strokes, but in small moments of comfort and clarity. It isn’t just inspiring to watch. It’s life affirming.
No amount of praise will ever be enough to describe the work Carell and Knightley do here. They are both performers I have loved individually for a long time, but together, each forces the other to constantly step up their game until they are each giving the best performances of their respective careers.
Anyone remotely familiar with Carell’s work will tell you he’s just as adept at drama as he is at comedy, and as Dodge, he solidifies that fact. This is searing, brutally honest dramatic work; there is pain in this man’s visage, the fatigue of regret in his movements, and the slightest glimmer of hope in his eyes. Dodge is a broken man we care for so deeply that even the most minor of victories that come his way carry a joyous weight on par with Luke destroying the death star. If enough people see this movie, I hope the general public is finally convinced that Carell isn’t just one of the finest actors working today, but a pantheon-level performer worthy of the largest awards and meatiest roles available.
Knightley has obviously had a rockier career, appearing in one too many period pieces over the years, but at her best, she stands as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, and Penny is a positively infectious character. An enthusiastic optimist faced with the darkest of circumstances, she is a beautiful bundle of energy and emotions, and Knightley isn’t afraid to wear them all on her sleeves. In some ways, this is less subtle than Carell’s work, but there’s good reason for that, and her performance isn’t any less nuanced or finely observed than her co-star’s.
As good as they are apart, though, the two are positively magnificent together. Simply watching these two exchange Scafaria’s exquisite dialogue may be the greatest pleasure I’ve had in a theatre all year. I could watch these two reenact My Dinner With Andre twice in a row and I still wouldn’t get bored. Chemistry simply does not come better than this. I’m honestly surprised Focus Features isn’t giving this a November release and a big Oscar push, because there’s absolutely no reason Carell and Knightley shouldn’t be front-runners this year for the big acting categories. They’re that good.
I could continue writing about why I love Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World for days if I had the chance. There are so many other memorable performances to talk about, from Gillian Jacobs’ small but hilarious appearance to Martin Sheen’s heartbreaking turn near the end of the movie. I could wax poetic about the technical accomplishments, from the simplistic yet gorgeous cinematography to Scafaria’s sublime choices in music. I could go on and on about how well Scafaria rides such tricky tonal shifts, moving back and forth from comedy to drama in the most natural of ways.
But I must stop myself. The most important thing to express is that I love this film, and that I do not use the word ‘love’ lightly. As someone who watches countless movies each year, it is a rare critical emotion I only sense when I truly feel it, and I am ecstatic when I do. 2012 has been a wonderful year for movies, but Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World stands at the top as one of my favorite films of the year.