A thoughtful look at the unthinkable, Lorene Scafaria preserves impending doom with humor and a new appreciation for tomorrow.
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley light up the screen in this decidedly positive take on the end of Mother Earth. Carell reprises his “Office” role as Dodge, an insurance salesman. A brick in the wall of America’s financial security, Dodge is comfortable enough in his job to not ask for anything more. When the end of the earth is announced, he sees the handwriting on the wall.
The time has come to act, and so he does. The character expands the role of the office worker to include a metamorphosis. The role examines what the stereotypical office worker would do if they, well, one morning woke up with a brain.
Keira Knightley shines in her performance of the star gazing character Penny, Dodge’s downstairs neighbor. Penny is a combination of Doris Day and Shirley MacLaine, bouncing from one relationship to another while keeping the sunny side up, as much as possible. She is the polar opposite of Dodge and, hence, love is born. This is always how it works in Hollywood.
Granted, given the context, the end of the world and all, it makes sense to live for the day. A lifetime joined at the hip becomes a good deal less onerous when the earth will explode in three weeks.
The first part of the film is the best, as writer/director Lorene Scafaria explores personal and societal reactions to the end of the world. Bodies fall from buildings and assassins are hired by their intended victims to end it all, before the end of it all. It is only as the first mob of vandals approaches Dodge’s and Penny’s Mid-Atlantic urban apartment that Dodge realizes his profession has ended.
The concept of the life insurance salesman doing business on the eve of destruction is a masterstroke (customers calling asking if their deaths will be covered when the earth fragments into the cosmos). A few gruesome scenes go a long way to anchor the message that the world is, really, ending, and people are, really, taking it seriously.
This last year has seen at least a couple other interpretations, both dark as night. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” had a touch of dark humor in it, as denial joins hands with acceptance as the end of life approaches. Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth” was as dense and airless an experience as sharing a dungeon with a hand grenade, with barely a glimpse of the lighter side of Armageddon.
Scafaria is able to take doom and turn it upside down with grace and humor. It is not unreasonable to expect people’s true personalities to be revealed when there is nothing left to lose. The trick is to have some fun with it.
Celebrating the announcement that the attempted intercept of the deadly asteroid has failed, Dodge’s white-collar friends (Rob Corddry and Connie Britton) host a drunken bacchanal of a dinner party where all rules are cancelled until further notice, and there will be no further notice. Heroine becomes acceptable, as does adultery of every stripe. There is no longer any need to worry about tomorrow. There is no tomorrow.
Dodge sees it differently. His deeper perspective is what makes up the second half of the film. Although not as riotous as the handling of the initial reactions to the end of life, the story develops into Dodge, and Penny, asking questions they both should have asked years before. More to the point, the two ask questions that all of us should be asking.
There follows the road trip through end-of-the-world destinations such as Trenton and Camden, ending up in trendy Somerset, New Jersey. On the way, the couple communes with the eerie fragments of civilization that develop when humans come to understand there soon will be no life as we know it. Some erupt into urban mobs, some form religious cults. Many continue on with life much the same as always.
The road trip takes Dodge and penny in search of Dodge’s lost high school sweetheart, Olivia, and finally to his estranged father Frank (Martin Sheen). Includes what may be the best “end of the world” sequence on film, the lunch at the fast food eatery “Friendsy’s,” which has devolved into a Dairy Queen disco environment more surreal than anything expect, possibly, the bridge scene in the last half of “Apocalypse Now.”
Great work by Gillian Jacobs and T.J. Miller playing extra friendly Friendsy’s hostess and host.
The soundtrack includes forgotten oldies by Herb Alpert and the Walker Brothers, songs you love to listen to but would never admit it. At least you would never admit it until the end had come. There are no music critics in a foxhole.
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Directed and Written by: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley and Melanie Lynskey
Release Date: June 22, 2012 LA Film Festival
MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Country: USA / Singapore / Malaysia / Indonesia
Color: Color / Black and White