Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Warning: this review contains spoilers

In Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, Steve Carell is Dodge, the archetypal dull ordinary schmuck living in New York, an insurance salesman no less. Keira Knightley is Penny, a much younger English neighbour who has relationship issues. They might never have got to know each other if it hadn’t been for an asteroid called Matilda heading Earthwards and promising the destruction of human life (though doubtless not for the cockroaches) in a mere twenty-one days.

To begin with the bigger picture and then move on to the relationship at the heart of this black comedy/satire/road movie/romcom hybrid, does it convince as a faithful depiction of the end times? It is surprising that the electricity stays on for so long, but without it we wouldn’t get the rolling news updates, and Dodge poignantly wouldn’t be able to play Penny’s much-loved vinyl LPs after he thinks he’s lost her. There are riots, though they seem to die down quickly. Perhaps it's all just so pointless. Most individuals are well behaved, if occasionally a little tetchier than usual. They cope with impending disaster in a spectrum of ways: there are hedonistic ones naturally, finding release in drug taking and sex. Others embrace religion, or picnic on the beach. Some kill themselves in despair to put an end to the awful anticipation, or get others to do it to them.

A few act as if nothing is wrong, such as Dodge’s Hispanic cleaner who insists on coming in once a week to vacuum his flat. People have yard sales, or mow the lawn. Some go to work, though in diminishing numbers; even Dodge for a while – ridiculously discussing the purchase of Armageddon cover with a potential customer – until a jumper lands on his windscreen in the car park. Pretending that things are normal retains control in the face of hopelessness, and keep a lid on the bubbling hysteria, though nobody is keen to take on the new vacancy of Chief Finance Officer offered by the unfeasibly optimistic supervisor, even if it does mean more money. Survivalists in their titanium-reinforced bunker, refreshingly depicted as tough black soldiers rather than the stereotypical white rednecks, are happy because they think they are going to inherit the earth as long as they have enough guns and crisps squared away, though they may have forgotten about having to share it with the cockroaches.

These all seem plausible responses, and make you wonder how you would behave in such a situation, knowing that nothing mattered anymore, while social pressures to conform were negligible. The major problem with the film, apart from a weak script with a heavily-contrived narrative that sets up its situations crudely, is the relationship between the two leads. Dodge is stupefyingly dull, albeit partly from the shock of his wife literally running off to be with someone she actually cares about. The most exciting thing about him is his name, though he does loosen up enough to take to drinking cough syrup for a kick, probably the only person over 16 ever to do so. Penny is the sort of kooky, feisty, flaky ‘free spirit’, but hiding a touching vulnerability, so beloved of Hollywood films but who would get up anyone’s nose in real life (she is probably in America after having worn out the patience of every late-twenties male in England). Yet they are thrown together when rioters come a-calling.

Thus the odd couple go on a trip away from burning New York (though fortunately when Dodge gets back his flat is tidy and his cleaner is, as always, just finishing the vacuuming with a cheery “see you next week”). Dodge wants to visit Olivia, an old girlfriend he has only just discovered cares about him, thanks to Penny having held on to his wrongly-delivered post. If only she had given him his letters a bit sooner, he could have contacted Olivia before things went completely tits-up (but really, how was Dodge ever the love of her life?). Meanwhile Penny, distraught at having put selfishness before family all these years, wants to make amends by choosing now, when there are no commercial flights, to go back to Surrey, England, to be with her relatives. Fortunately Dodge knows someone with a light aircraft capable of flying the Atlantic, so they can help each other out, and he can make peace with his estranged father as a bonus. You can see how Dodge and Penny’s relationship is going to end, if not any reason for such a depth of feeling between the pair. Ultimately, the key song missing from the soupy soundtrack is Stephen Stills’s Love the One You’re With.

While the focus is on these two ordinary characters trying to find meaning in absurdity, the film isn’t really about Dodge and Penny. It’s about what people do in extremis, though one that is surely sanitised – would we on the whole be this sane in an insane place? Its message is one not just for the end of the world, but for now: don’t have regrets over things not done, but do what you can in order to give your life meaning while you have time. Whether that is licence to take heroin is debatable, but it is not a bad principle. If the Mayans got it right, the world will come to an end in December 2012, and we will have similar decisions to make, so seize the day. I’m going to draw up a bucket list, immediately.