If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s unbelievably contrived plots. Take, for example, that terrible UGH movie, Forces of Nature, with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck in 1999. I mean, it was so terrible that I still remember it 10 years later. They basically run into one contrived and ridiculous disaster after another, and though I think Sandra Bullock is a hugely underrated actress and wasted on most of the movies she’s done, not even her charm could save this one. UGH.
But, in the mood for a little depression, my partner and I went and saw Seeking a Friend for the End of the World this weekend. She wanted to go see this house around the block that uses less than zero energy and it was the only movie we could make and still do the open house. Plus, we both kind of like Steve Carell.
The best place to start with this movie is its theme–the world is ending in 3 weeks. Every human being on earth (as well as all other creatures) is going to die at the same moment. This is incontrovertible (and, thank whatever/whoever, they don’t do a turnaround on this). There’s something very brave about a writer/director taking on the idea of dying well, and really examining all the ways people come at an inevitable end. I’m happy to say that Lorene Scafaria allows us to see what we already know–that some people come at it with violence, some with denial, some with a desire to control (and so hire a hit man), some with despair, some with hedonism, some with hope of making meaning. The wisdom of this vision, and the terrible sadness of mortality–because every living thing does die, if not all at once–permeate the movie. So, yay, Lorene Scafaria. This is a heavy hitter of a movie in many ways.
And, of course, Steve Carell plays a man whose life has been pretty empty up until the impending apocalypse–a part he does just so well. His wife (played by his real wife, though she has no lines) leaves him within seconds of hearing the announcement and his sadness and sense of meaninglessness–and his odd integrity in refusing to escape from this–is touching. Kiera Knightly, who I recently saw in A Dangerous Method and flat out HATED, is, well, Kiera Knightly. She’s easy on the eyes, she loves to cry and hit emotions too hard, she has moments and is charming. So, I didn’t hate her in this. I just liked him a ton better.
But, and now we come to the real question of the film–what the hell is the dog doing in this movie? He doesn’t have any lines, he doesn’t have a purpose, he doesn’t have a role in the plot or even the theme. I mean, I don’t have anything against dogs even though my partner has been fighting me on getting one for 3 years now (because she rightly assumes she’d have to do all the nasty work), but this dog needs a dramatic action. Absurd as it sounds, it just does.
And, real question, how stupid does Lorene Scafaria think I am? There are some real bell-ringers in this movie in terms of VERY CONTRIVED PLOT LET’S-GET-FROM-HERE-TO-THERE-WE-CAN’T-FIGURE-OUT-ANY-OTHER-WAY. I mean, it’s set up that Knightly’s character is hyper-somniac, afraid she’s going to sleep through the apocalypse. At first, it seems sort of charmingly neurotic if inessential, but toward the end of the movie you realize there’s a plot twist that turns on the fact that she can’t wake up without help…and it’s a true groaner. Similarly, that a minor character just happens to have a satellite phone so Knightly can call home to Europe (how is the phone at the other end working, one wonders). There are more. My partner and I kept looking at each other, wanting to shout, “come on!” at Scafaria.
What’s truly sad is the fact that the movie builds so well…the relationship between Carell’s and Knightly’s characters grows seamlessly as they hit the road and encounter the usual set of challenges and characters. It’s meaningful to watch their growing closeness as the world comes closer to ending. It’s a smart contrast. It could have made for a great movie.
But the false plot devices and the one cliched encounter (with a relative, trying not to do a spoiler), and the extra little bit at the end after the great gesture of love (that really does give meaning to all our lives) undermine the depth of the movie as a whole. So it’s not a great movie. It is a movie that makes you feel, makes you question what it is to be human, makes you feel the grief of our short lives…the images have haunted me for two days now. Of course, there’s humor, but it is a tragedy in the true sense of the word.
I just wish Scafaria had been a little braver in letting her story unfold, and ending it at the moment of greatest tragedy and nobility. I mean, she shows us so many shades of humanity, gives us the nature of love…why did the story have to be less than it wanted to be?
I’m glad I saw it–I mean, it did serve up it’s promised ration of depression. But this week I’m going back to the Kendall for my usual diet of independent films. They may not be great, but they assume a modicum of intelligence on my part, which I greatly appreciate.