|Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World|
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, from writer–director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), is a charming and oddly pleasant romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the last three weeks before the Earth is destroyed by an asteroid's impact. Unfortunately, Seeking a Friend seems to have missed its cultural moment: it not only comes on the heels of 2011's limited-perspective apocalypse dramas Melancholia and 4:44 Last Day on Earth, but it unironically presents a quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the year of her deconstruction, from Zoe Kazan's Ruby Sparks to Parker Posey's character Liz on the television series Louie. 2012 phenomena aside, Seeking a Friend feels like it ought to have come out around the turn of the millennium, the last time the cultural collective was fixated on The End. As it is, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World feels hopelessly dated and out-of-touch.
Steve Carell stars as the too-on-the-nose named Dodge, the Inhibited Sad Sack who needs Keira Knightley's Manic Pixie Dream Girl Penny to deliver him from his lonely joyless life. Penny is 100 proof MPDG, from her introduction where she literally throws herself into Dodge's arms through his apartment window when he checks in on her during a apocalypse/breakup-induced crying session on the fire escape, to her seemingly serious medical condition that's presented as quirky and precious (hypersomnia); her misplaced priorities (fleeing her home as a rioting mob descends, she grabs as many vinyl records as she can carry and screams to the others, "Goodbye, Friends!") to her improbably sunny disposition (when Dodge tries to prompt her to think of things she won't miss about the world, she even finds sympathy for her dentist).
|Keira Knightley as Penny|
It is unusual to find such a classic Manic Pixie in a film written by a woman, but at least Scafaria crafts Penny so that she has her own motivation outside of fixing what's left of Dodge's life. After missing the last of the commercial flights to the UK where her family is, she agrees to help Dodge get to the home of his high school sweetheart in exchange for him taking her to "someone I used to know who has a plane." In one of the most touching scenes, Penny is able to contact her family via satellite phone (cell service has been discontinued for reasons I didn't quite understand), and in that moment she seems like a real person with a real history, completely independent from Dodge or any other man.
But for the rest of the film (most notably, the conclusion), Penny seems to exist to save the spirits of Dodge. If Seeking a Friend for the End of the World were just a touch more artful, I would surmise it was using setting to further deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Because what better time to meet an Manic Pixie than the last two weeks before the apocalypse, when everyone is acting on hedonist impulses, and long term consequences are not a concern? At the end of most Manic Pixie Dream Girl films, the credits roll and the audience has to suppress cynical speculation as to how the rest of the MPDG and the Sad Sack's relationship would play out, wondering how such a dynamic could possibly be sustained. As Seeking a Friend for the End of the World fades to white, we're free from these doubts. Dodge and Penny's whirlwind romance doesn't have to work very hard to last until the end of time.