I’ll never forget the first time I saw Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s bleak drama about the end of the world. Two wealthy sisters, one depressive and the other well-adjusted, try to process the awful reality that a rogue planet is about to collide with the earth. In a final scene both poignant and terrifying, the older sister gathers up her young son and all three of them lie down on the lawn of their vast estate, holding one another as the planet fills the sky overhead. Behind them the treeline bursts into flame, and a great conflagration sweeps toward them, incinerating everything they’ve ever known or loved. “You know,” I thought, “this would make a great Steve Carell comedy.”
And so it does. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the debut feature of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, takes place in the last three weeks before a giant asteroid destroys the earth, but this time the premise generates a clever comedy of manners. Or rather, lack of manners, since people seldom observe the social niceties when they’re about to die. To facilitate the plot, Scafaria fudges some of the practical implications of Armageddon—the airlines, the U.S. mail, and the cable news networks keep functioning long after you’d expect the workers there to have gone AWOL. But she fully engages the great behavorial and philosophical questions inherent in her story: what will seem important to people, and how will they choose to live their lives, when they know exactly how long they have left?
The ironies come fast and furious. Carell’s character, Dodge Peterson, is an insurance agent who’s always played it safe. Showing up for work at his nearly deserted office, he wearily informs one caller, “I’m afraid the Armageddon policy is extra.” In the opening scene, he and his wife, Linda (Nancy Carell, the actor’s real-life spouse), hear on their car radio that the space shuttle Deliverance has exploded on its last-ditch mission to save the earth. Linda bolts from the car, never to be seen again, while the radio station follows its virtual death sentence with the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a sprightly song about young lovers dreaming of the future. Eventually Dodge befriends young Penny (Keira Knightley), a kindred spirit who lives in his apartment building, and admits, “Being afraid of dying alone is the reason I got married in the first place.”
Unfortunately for Dodge, Penny lets slip that she’s seen Linda sneaking around with another man, into whose arms she’s undoubtedly run. Penny also hands Dodge a letter, which accidentally wound up in her mailbox, from his high school sweetheart, who implores him to come join her. Penny, for her part, agonizes over the fact that she’s neglected her family back in England to pursue a series of flaky boyfriends. “I’ve given all my time to the wrong people,” she confesses tearfully. This is an overarching theme in Seeking a Friend: once life becomes finite, people’s emotional priorities are dramatically reordered and they decide to spend their last remaining hours with the ones they truly love.
For some characters, though, the one they truly love is the person in the mirror. An early scene shows Dodge walking on a treadmill at his health club while a bodybuilder behind him works out with hand weights and admires himself in the floor-to-ceiling glass. Hedonism runs rampant: at a dinner party hosted by his friends Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton), every taboo goes out the window. Warren force-feeds his little daughter a martini (“Fight through the burn!” he barks), and Diane bursts into a room to announce, “Sarah and Dave brought heroin!” The portly Roache (Patton Oswalt) boasts to Dodge that since Deliverance blew up he’s had a different sex partner every day. When Dodge retreats from this bacchanal into the bathroom, Diane slips in behind him and kisses him on the lips. “You’re Warren’s,” Dodge protests in shock. “No, I’m not,” she replies. “Nobody is anybody’s anything anymore.”
But she’s wrong. The most perplexing character in Seeking a Friend is Elsa (Tonita Castro), the woman who cleans Dodge’s apartment every week. When Dodge tells her she needn’t show up anymore, Elsa is wounded and asks if she’s being fired; when he relents and asks her to come back, she’s beatific. “I regret my entire life,” he mutters, though the remark seems to go right over her head. Even after two viewings, I can’t figure out whether this minor character is a blissful idiot or the wisest person in the movie: she’s happy to be helping, happy in her work, and at the end of the movie she promises to come back again the next week despite the fact that there won’t be one. Dodge may regret his entire life, and clearly there are many like him. But Elsa doesn’t regret a moment.