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Film review: Promising ‘Seeking a Friend’ Skewered By Sentiment

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 6Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the feel-good comedy of the year!” Ah, no. It is an off-kilter romantic comedy that ultimately buries itself in good feelings, which in this case is a shame.

The feature directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is a sweet-natured flick that offers game performances by some of its supporting cast and enough of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley’s familiar quirky screen personas to please their fans. But what starts out as an intriguing premise gets overly sentimental by the end. It’s not supposed to be this year’s Melancholia, but it shouldn’t finish as a funny-but-apocalyptic variant on The Notebook either.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 9We get some taste of what we’re in for when we hear the protagonist is named Dodge – nothing like using a name to telegraph the lead character’s personality. But there are definitely possibilities to explore after Carell’s sad-sack is quickly abandoned by his wife when it’s announced that a 70-mile-wide meteor named Matilda is going to take out the planet in about three weeks’ time (interesting tidbit from the production notes – Dodge’s wife is played by Carell’s wife Nancy and their scene together, which was the last one shot, was filmed on the couple’s actual wedding anniversary).

Dodge doesn’t want to be like his hedonistic friends and acquaintances (the ever-funny trio of Rob Corddry, Connie Britton and Patton Oswalt) who figure it’s time to party until they literally drop. He’s hardly happier about what does come into his life during the end of days, though – an abandoned dog he names Sorry (played by an adorable pooch named Aleister) and a thrift-shop-wearing, vinyl-record-playing British-born free spirit named Penny (Knightley).

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 2A riot forces them from their apartment house, so (you guessed it) the pair hit the road. Dodge wants to catch up with Olivia, his supposed true love, while Penny would like to make it back to Dear Old Blighty to see the family one last time.

Scafaria gives us some colorful characters and incidents, including a decidedly fatalistic truck driver (William Petersen) and a supremely confident survivalist (Derek Luke). And there’s a great satirical jab when Dodge and Penny stop along the way at an Ecstasy-fired restaurant – it’s called Friendsy’s, and the servers (led by the delightfully goofy duo of Gillian Jacobs as Katie and T.J. Miller as Darcy the Chipper Host) all wear red-and-white striped shirts. No prizes for guessing the target of that set-up.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 5Yes, for much of the film humor, irony and satire hold sway, and as usual Carell and Knightley are broadly appealing. We’ve seen them do these character types before, but there’s no denying that both are quite endearing when it comes to playing off-center roles.

That doesn’t change the fact that the picture’s final third is sentimentally soppy, however. Of course, from Dodge’s name to other spoiler elements I won’t disclose, Scafaria’s story has telegraphed what will happen before the final credits roll, so perhaps the soft ending should be expected. It’s true that a calamity can create strange bedfellows, but the way Seeking a Friend for the End of the World ties it up in a neat Hollywood bow left me longing for Lars Von Trier.

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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (www.seekingafriendmovie.com) opens in Nashville and elsewhere in wide release today (Friday, June 22). Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence, 101 min. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Starring Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Patton Oswalt, Gillian Jacobs, Derek Luke, Melanie Lynskey, T. J. Miller, William Petersen and Mark Moses.

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*Photos by Darren Michaels courtesy Focus Features.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).