The central dilemma for me here is this: how heavily do you weigh your expectations of a film against the film you actually saw? If I’d been looking to see a thoroughly earnest, slightly sappy romance between Steve Carell’s pointy Pinocchio nose and Keira Knightley’s charmingly inscrutable underbite, I’d probably think of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as a classic. If you were looking to see people find love in the strangest of places and maybe have yourself a nice cry, you couldn’t do much better than this. That was not the movie I was expecting. And I don’t mean that to imply that I read too much into the trailers, I mean that to say that I saw about 25 minutes of a movie I loved, and then it changed into something completely different that I didn’t.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria in her directorial debut (having previously written Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), the film opens with Steve Carell sitting wide-eyed in the car with his wife (played by his real-life wife Nancy Walls) glued to the radio, through which an announcer explains “The final mission to save mankind has failed. The 70-mile-wide asteroid known as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with Earth in three week’s time, and we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days… along with all your classic rock favorites.”
The opening notes to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys fade in, and Carell’s wife opens the door and bolts down the street, never to be seen again (we think). Now, the opening of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is on a short list of musical choices that would make me go a big rubbery one in almost any context, but even admitting that, Seeking a Friend has one of the best opening scenes of any movie ever. It says so much with so little that the movie could almost end right there. It’s a perfect scene. And maybe that’s the problem. That two-minute opening sort of says everything that needs to be said.
The next 20 minutes or so basically involves the various ways people deal. With his wife gone, Carell turns down easy sex and set ups with desperate women, because, GOD FORBID a male character in a comedy have sex with a girl he wasn’t in love with because it was presented to him, we might not like him! I always thought that was a male-screenwriter-apology thing, but it seems Scafaria isn’t immune to it either. To be fair, I probably wouldn’t notice it here if it hadn’t happened in every single Apatow movie, but there you go. So anyway, Carell shows up to his insurance job, where the people are crying and the boss is begging for someone to take over as CFO. Carell leaves, meets Patton Oswalt chugging a carafe of wine at a dinner party as it’s about to descend into an orgy, and his best friend played by Rob Corddry opens his stash of expensive whiskey and cigars. Between Corddry and Oswalt getting one scene each and Rob Huebel getting literally one line (“I’ve wasted my life!”), you could make three movies with the comedic talent wasted here. But that’s not a true criticism, just me Monday morning filmmaking.
The real criticism is this: after watching a 20 or 30 minute comedy about the end of the world (an incredibly sharp, funny, touching one), suddenly I found myself watching a love story. Not only a love story, but the more the movie went on, a love story that could’ve been set anywhere. There’s a creativity exercise where someone gives you a condition – the world’s supply of sugar has run out, mosquitoes wear pants, the Queen of England is a rhinoceros with a wiener for a horn, etc. – and you have to write down all the consequences and implications of that condition. It seems like Lorene Scafaria got halfway through “an asteroid will hit Earth and destroy humanity in three weeks” and just decided she didn’t want to write that anymore. We go from riots and orgies to… middle-class suburbs that still look pretty much like middle-class suburbs, small-town cops who still act like small-town cops, fully-functioning infrastructure, etc. With Carell’s maid who keeps coming to his house to clean in the face of the impending apocalypse, her maintaining all her old habits is clearly a coping strategy. With a lot of later characters, it just seems like a way to keep the focus on Carell and Knightley without working too hard.
Also, screenwriters: can you stop shoehorning your musical tastes into your screenplays, please? We’re not 15, no one thinks you’re cool for liking Lou Reed anymore. It’s great as background, but no one needs lines like “Listen to this, it’s the Shins, they’ll change your life.” That was from Garden State and is the worst example of this phenomenon, but the female-character-who’s-soooo-deep-because-she-likes-music is the common theme here. (Feel free to call me a hypocrite for my Beach Boys line earlier, but it’s different, I wasn’t trying to seem deep).
I’m being harsh not because I hated the movie, I hate that it was almost an amazing movie. I don’t want to say “bait and switch,” but don’t give me a meet-cute that starts with the line “I promise not to steal anything if you don’t rape me,” and then don’t even attempt a humorous moment for the last 40 minutes of the movie. I wanted to watch drunk Patton Oswalt at an end-of-the-world wine orgy, and this wasn’t that. Fine. Instead it’s an earnest, personal love story, and I could never completely dislike something that seems honest and specific. If the creator seems to care about what they’re making, I’m probably going to care too. But man, this could’ve been so much more.