With an asteroid about to obliterate the Earth, jilted schlub Dodge (Carell) and his British next-door neighbour Penny (Knightley) embark on a mutually beneficial road trip: he will get her to a plane so she can return to family in Blighty; in return, she will help him track down Olivia, the real love of his life.
Whether the answer is a) spend time with loved ones, b) embark on a non-stop hedonistic odyssey, c) tick the top five things off your bucket list or d) re-arrange your DVD collection alphabetically (Air Bud to Zulu Dawn), the question of how you would spend the last significant days of your life if you knew the world was going to end is ripe with philosophical, dramatic, blackly humorous emotional possibilities. Focusing on how two mismatched people figure out a response to global annihilation, Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut is a likable high-end indie riposte to those duelling asteroid films of the late ’90s. Scafaria is best known for adapting 2008’s immensely likable Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and this film shares a lot of that flick’s sense of characters gradually getting to know each other with generosity, offbeat wit and a protean soundtrack (The Beach Boys to Wang Chung, PM Dawn to Scott Walker). Only this time, there is added encroaching apocalypse.
Perhaps an unlikely place for the start of a comedy, SAFFTEOTW picks up where the second act of Deep Impact ends: the space shuttle Deliverance has failed in its attempts to destroy 70 mile-wide asteroid Mathilda and the hunk of space rock will undoubtedly flatten the Earth in three weeks. A strong economical opening does a good job of sketching the diversity of reactions both personal and public (the traffic reporter hands back to the studio with, “We’re fucked, Bob”), the early stretch peppered with gallows humour and one genuine shock that feels fresh and believable.
Yet, once a riot throws Steve Carell’s Dodge and Keira Knightley’s Penny together, we are thrown into an episodic, familiar-feeling road trip with the mismatched pair running into a new quirky character — stand-outs are William Petersen’s dying trucker who has hired a hit man to put him out of his misery and Derek Luke as Penny’s crazy ex who is building a titanium bunker to start a new world order — around every reel change. There is some funny stuff here, especially in the margins — a crazy with a ‘The End Is Near’ sandwich board who feels vindicated — but the film is better on the growing companionship between Dodge and Penny.
The pairing of an A-list funny-man and a plummy English sort in a quirky indie-com suggests the Carrey-Winslet pairing of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Carell does a more nuanced than usual take on his likable loser persona (check him in the opening scene abandoned by his wife listening to Wouldn’t It Be Nice), playing down the cliché and sentiment in the filling-more-life-in-his-last-days-than-he-had-in-the-previous-50-years scenario. Meanwhile, Knightley’s Penny seems to be cut from the same UK manic-pixie dreamgirl cloth as Winslet’s Clementine. She smokes spliffs, can sleep through anything and, in one of the film’s nicest scenes, waxes lyrical about the joys of vinyl. As an actress, Knightley doesn’t have funny bones in the same way as, say Frances McDormand, but she registers laugh-out-loud moments (“I won’t steal anything if you won’t kill me”) and comes into her own in a low-key emotional phone home to her family.
Scafaria does little that is interesting with her filmmaking tool box, happy for the characters, their friendship and predicament to take centre stage. As the film moves towards its inescapably downbeat finale, she finds some balance without copping out. It might be the end of the world as we know it. But you’ll feel fine.
A decidedly human respite from all the superhero action. Perhaps not as funny or affecting as youd hope, but Carell and Knightley make for good company for the darkest days.