Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

3 stars

Rated R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Cast: Kiera Knightley (Penny), Steve Carrell (Dodge), William Petersen (Trucker), Mark Moses (Anchorman), Connie Britton (Diane)

The movie hadn’t been on very long, but I had the feeling that most of the funny scenes from the trailer had already flown by. I checked my watch: six minutes. Not much later the rest of the trailer galloped past. Then Dodge, the Steve Carrell character, pulled into his rooftop parking place at work. He leaned forward to check an insect bite on his cheek in the rear view mirror. With a shattering crash, a body landed on his windshield.

So if this film is marketed as a Steve Carrell comedy, if the Genre on IMDB is listed as “Comedy, Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi” in that order, then they might be using the term “comedy” in a sense different from “a movie that makes you laugh.”

For one thing, the less-than-ha-ha premise is that the world is about to end. In the opening scene, Dodge and his wife are pulled over on a darkened street, listening to the car radio. The announcer is saying that the space shuttle Deliverance has exploded in space; it was the last hope to stop a 70-mile-wide asteroid, called “Matilda,” before it puts an end to life on earth. “The final mission to save mankind has failed,” says the radio announcer, and Matilda is “set to collide with earth in exactly three weeks time, and we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites.”

Dodge mutters, “I think we missed our exit.” His wife opens the passenger door and runs away.

Even in these first minutes you get a clue about the tone of the film. Carrell looks old. In the bluish light, his jowls are heavy, and the wrinkles are deep. It’s a vulnerability, in terms of appearance, that would be called “courageous” in an actress, and it’s just as brave for an actor who’s still competing in the comic-romantic-lead category. There is no flicker of restrained playfulness in his expression, and it’s an expression he wears throughout much of the movie. Particularly strong is a late scene in which he confronts someone who hurt him badly. You’re on edge, waiting for the scowl to soften, forgivingly. It never does. It’s a different role than I’ve seen Carrell do before, and he does it well.

As the days tick down, Carrell continues to show up for work, mopes at his apartment, looks at a photo of Olivia, his first love, and wonders where she is now. One day he finds his neighbor, Penny, crying on the fire escape. She’s upset about a lost love, and comes into the apartment where they talk about their wishes for the coming weeks. She wants to go home to England and be with her family; he says he plans to “Catch up on some ‘me’ time, find God, move around some chairs.”

But when Penny returns to her apartment she remembers a stack of mail addressed to him that she’s been gathering for some time. “You know how the mailman puts the mail in the wrong box some times?” she asks. One letter is from Olivia, and says, “You were the love of my life;” suddenly, Dodge has a purpose, a goal, for his final days. As rioters advance on their building, Penny and Dodge flee. She will drive him to Olivia, and he will take her to a friend who has a plane.

There’s a lot to admire about this movie. The view of how people might react in such a tense time is well imagined; a notice board has ads like “Hire an Assasin” and “[Deleted] a Virgin!” The headline on the cover of a newsweekly reads “The Best of Humanity,” beside pictures of Jesus and Oprah. Dodge goes to a party at the house of some friends, where the wife greets him with, “She left you? I’m so surprised she didn’t do it earlier.” We later see the dad is coaching his little girl in downing a large martini, and the wife announces new guests with, “Sarah and Dave brought heroin!” Fleeing rioters, a would-be boyfriend tells Penny, “I love you, I want to take care of you;” then gunfire erupts, and he ducks down, swinging her around as a shield. There are plenty of good acerbic moments like that, presenting a view of human nature familiar to anyone who’s heard of Original Sin.

As in any road trip movie, Penny and Dodge encounter a series of characters who are interesting or touching in their own way—some, very touching (the TV anchorman, in a tiny part, makes a big impression in a short scene in which he speaks of prayer). While faith never becomes a strong theme it keeps coming up, and usually in terms Christians would recognize.

As in any Carrell movie, the lead character is a decent guy who is surrounded by insensitive and immoral creeps, and suffers them with tense politeness. It’s an odd niche to for an actor carve out, but he’s made it genuinely intriguing over a number of films now. This character is intelligent and thoughtful, and by his resistance to the morals of the hard-partying crowd (in The Forty Year Old Virgin and elsewhere, as here) he presents a surprisingly affecting argument for doing the right thing, being honest, and being responsible, though it consistently leaves him out in the cold.

The problem, I think, is that the actress Kiera Knightley just isn’t up to balancing this complex, bittersweet character. She’s too young still, maybe. She doesn’t seem to have the depth, or personal experience with disappointment and sorrow, that a more seasoned actress could draw on. Watching this movie, you can believe that Dodge is facing the end of the world, but Penny looks instead like she’s an actress in a movie about the end of the world. He inhabits his character. She scrunches up her nose. He’s 50. She’s 27. They just don’t click.

There’s a scene early on when Dodge lets Penny know that he’s angry that she held onto his mail for 3 months, so that he only now read the letter from Olivia. Penny crumples her face and says, “Now I feel bad! Guilt isn’t a feeling I’m comfortable with!”

For a moment there I hoped she might become a character like Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a character who has plenty of flaws—in this case, someone self-centered, childish, lacking in empathy, and very needy. Perhaps the movie then would not be about the two of them, but about Dodge, and how he comes to see he should spend his last days protecting this basket case, and give up his hope of spending his last days with Olivia. But it’s a more conventional story than that, and increasingly so as it goes along. Neither Dodge nor Penny change much, as characters. They bump into various events, but are not deeply changed. How much better the movie might have been with a more seasoned actress is an unanswerable question. It’s a movie that dares great things, though, and shows some brilliance in the writing, but in final form just doesn’t have the impact it could have. Unlike Matilda.

Talk About It

1. The question most obviously posed by this movie is: What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in 21 days?

2. At a difficult point in the story Dodge says, “You’d think a lifetime waiting for the worst to happen would have prepared me for this.” Why does expecting the worst not prepare us to deal with the worst?

3. A character defends his right to drink to excess by saying, “This is not the Ark, it’s the Titanic, and there’s not a lifeboat in sight!” Others choose sex or suicide, and one caller to Dodge’s office is still concerned about his insurance coverage. Do you think the movie gives a realistic spectrum of how people would react? What should a Christian do in the midst of a collapsing society?

The Family Corner

There are some crude discussions of sex, and some cursing, as well as some drug use. In addition to the rioters and the body on the windshield, a character is unexpectedly shot in the head. The grim subject matter makes the film generally inappropriate for children.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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