Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Perfect Mismatch: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley's biggest flaw as an actress is her perfectly beautiful face. Other actresses are cuter, more voluptuous or sexier on the whole, but no one else has features that look like instructional models for cosmetic surgeons: those high cheekbones, that tiny nose, that sharp jaw line, that toothy smile. Looking into Knightley's face is like staring into a spotlight; it blinds us to everything around it. No doubt, Knightley's incredible beauty has been a key component of her fast-rising Hollywood stardom, which began a decade ago with the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham, exploded a year later with The Pirates of the Caribbean and reached Oscar status with her Best Actress nomination for 2005's Pride & Prejudice, just to name a few highlights, but Knightley's gorgeousness makes it difficult for her to disappear inside her roles. She's a natural for playing objects of desire, as in Love Actually or Atonement, but when she plays someone damaged, such as in last year's A Dangerous Method, or merely plain, as in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it's rarely love at first sight.

This is the long way around to pointing out that, on the surface of things, Knightley appears to be grossly miscast as Penny, the little bit damaged, little bit plain and little bit quirky young woman with a deadbeat boyfriend and a solid record collection who, thanks to Knightley, is still a lot gorgeous. Knightley doesn't just clash with her character, she's also at visual odds with her costar, Steve Carell, whose familiar everyman persona is so extraordinarily ordinary that he makes Jimmy Stewart look like, well, Cary Grant. Carell characters aren't supposed to be in love entanglements with Knightly characters. They're supposed to manage paper companies in Scranton and hold onto their virginity for several decades. They're supposed to be in love with women played by Amy Ryan, Catherine Keener or Tina Fey - attractive women, all of them, but not candidates to be the face of Chanel or a Russian romance saga. Carell is meant to play guys named Dodge, which is precisely what he does here. Knightley is meant to star opposite men who look like Ferraris.

But as it turns out, the mismatching of Knightley and Carell is core to Seeking's charm and its themes. Set amidst a countdown to, you guessed it, the end of the world (an asteroid is on the way), Seeking explores how mankind's tendency to operate on autopilot causes us to ignore the earth-shattering truths within us. We stay in relationships that don't make us happy. We work for promotions that don't fulfill us. We hold grudges that don't satisfy our pain. And so on. Finding peace isn't about crossing items off a bucket list, it's simply about seeing things as they are. Except that seeing things as they are is rarely simple - a point Seeking underlines with a sporadically hilarious running gag in which characters can't quite break themselves of their routines, even as the world gets ready to crumble around them. There's comfort in the familiar, and it's all too easy to confuse that comfort with contentment, or, worse, with happiness. Thus, the tragic beauty of the bond that develops between Penny and Dodge is directly tied to the visual mismatch of Knightley and Carell, because without a catastrophe forcing them together they'd have never moved beyond casual pleasantries.

Where things end for Penny and Dodge is for you to discover. (Normally, I'd just say "spoiler warning" and write as if you've seen this movie, but based on the box office numbers, which confirm the outward awkwardness of the Knightley-Carell pairing, it's a safe guess you haven't.) Still, it isn't too soon to give credit to writer/director Lorene Scafaria for keeping me mostly in doubt. Oh, sure, you may guess how this whole thing ends; you've seen enough movies to know that there aren't even a handful of options. But the thrill of Seeking isn't in the not knowing. It's in the enjoyment of a credible alternative; there's romance here if Dodge and Penny find one another or merely help each other find someone(s) else. Seeking approaches love in its purest form: not as a possession for selfish fulfillment but as a resource that can be drawn upon to fulfill someone else's needs. In these increasingly self-absorbed times, Scafaria seems to be asking: do we need to face utter disaster to do what's right?

In that respect, Seeking is something of a dare, both in its themes and its lightheartedness. I saw the movie roughly 24 hours into a storm-induced state of emergency that had much of the Washington, DC, area (including me) without power and seeking refuge in the few places that still had juice (and therefore air conditioning). That made for the perfect real-life backdrop for this priority-check fantasy - allowing me to connect with Scafaria's film quickly and completely despite an uneven middle portion that often feels more like a grab bag of comic roadtrip-movie concepts rather than a collection of fully conceived scenes. But as often as I found myself connecting the onscreen panic with the comparatively minor catastrophe unfolding in my own community, Seeking also had me thinking back to Joe Posnanski's marvelous response to the now infamous Grand Forks Herald (rave) review of the Olive Garden back in March. At its essence, Scafaria's film is about the challenge of ignoring societal expectations and leading with one's heart, and I was delighted to find that the film practices as it preaches.

The Knightley-Carell pairing may not make sense on paper, but thankfully great cinema isn't bound by formula. If you can overcome the knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the starring duo on first sight and resist the temptation to evaluate the film according to its modest marketing campaign, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World proves to be unusually perceptive and honest. Much of the film's power comes directly from Carell, who is to openheartedness what Jennifer Love Hewitt is to open-chested sweaters. But don't overlook Knightley, who gives what might be the best performance of her career - warm, playful, and endearingly scattered. You're tempted to doubt me, sight unseen, I understand that. Your instincts will tell you that Knightley's best performance should come - must come - in a bigger movie, a darker movie, a more prestigious movie - or at least a movie in which she's paired with a similarly gorgeous leading man. But these are silly customs. And it shouldn't take the end of the world for us to correct them.


FilmDr said...

I admire your defense of the film, your openness to the movie's meditations on love, habit, and mortality, but I'm still stunned by your claim the it contains "Knightley's best performance of her career." I had just seen her in London Boulevard and that role struck me as much more nuanced and decidedly less manic pixie dream girl-ish. Penny seems relatively blank in comparison, as if Knightley had lopped off aspects of her intelligence and depth for the role. At any rate, we can respectfully disagree about this movie.

I look forward to your thoughts, some day(?), about Moonrise Kingdom.

Jason Bellamy said...

Well, the first part it easy: I haven't seen London Boulevard.

I suppose what struck me here is that Knightley took a character that I don't think is written with a lot of depth and made her feel real to me. The degree of difficulty is higher in something like A Dangerous Method, and the fit is better in something like Love Actually or Atonement (or even Never Let Me Go, I suppose). But I watch that scene with Knightley and the cop and she's brilliant in it.

(Aside: In looking to fetch a screen grab for this review -- having already written it -- I saw the trailer for this movie for the first time. VERY glad I didn't see it before I saw the movie.)

Yes, we'll agree to disagree. And, as I said at your blog, I recognize many of your criticisms even as in my own experience they were rendered moot by other pleasures.

As for Moonrise ... In a busy time of year, that's the movie that made me almost give up on writing about movies. But I'm hopeful for a productive few weeks, and maybe I can tackle that soon! Until then, stay tuned!

Hokahey said...

I really enjoyed this movie, and Carell fits into it smoothly from the start. I agree that Knightley seemed oddly cast. Then the sincerity and sensitivity of her performance took over, and I felt like I was seeing Knightley more invested in her role than ever before. Like Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Knightley's performance is not just a hodge-podge of quirkiness. She establishes an engaging character and achieves some very touching moments.

Fox said...

With respect to the Film Dr. - whose take I have yet to read - I feel like SEEKING... is the most misunderstood film of the year.

No doubt that Scafaria's film is an odd one in tone. I didn't laugh or chuckle at the film once, and I choose to believe that we aren't meant to.

For instance, I found the moment where Carrell's wife runs from the car, the moment his friend's wife sits with him in the bathroom, and the moment his workmate takes the plunge to all be devastating, not darkly humorous.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: The moments you mentioned could certainly be seen as not designed to be funny -- or at least not designed to be outrageous knee slappers. The suddenness with which Carell's wife bolts from the car is a bit comic, but the scene is certainly dark. And the suicidal coworker is just sad.

But there are definitely intentional laugh lines, most of them coming from the TV news reports that are either hilariously blunt (the reporter's assessment of the traffic gridlock, for example) or hilariously divorced from the carnage outside (the daylight savings time bit, for example). Although some of that stuff plays as a critique of TV news in general (where reporters often ramble on when plainspoken honesty would work better, and where stories of utter devastation are often followed by stories of heroic family pets), that humor really digs into the movie's themes -- that the truth is always right there in front of us, and that sometimes we go to hilariously pathetic lengths to ignore it.

Michael S said...

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by saying Moonrise Kingdom "made [you] almost give up on writing about movies," because that would be really unfortunate. It's probably exaggeration, but combined with the relative absence on this space it's enough to make me say I think your writing is among the best film blogs covering contemporary film, and I'd miss it (as I have been so far this year, though there's probably a good reason for that) if it were to go away.

The way you find a way into movies, praised or maligned like here, or in two of my favorite pieces of yours from last year (J. Edgar and Moneyball) is not just an engaging read but opens the film up in a way that is always welcome. This section:

"Your instincts will tell you that Knightley's best performance should come - must come - in a bigger movie, a darker movie, a more prestigious movie - or at least a movie in which she's paired with a similarly gorgeous leading man"

regardless of whether it turns out anyone that sees the film thinks it's good or not or lives or dies on Knightley's performance is a great reminder to always keep looking for, whether it's directors or actors, greatness where others haven't said it's located.

Looking forward to more in the future, hopefully.

jake said...

Your line "Carell, who is to openheartedness what Jennifer Love Hewitt is to open-chested sweaters" just made me crack up, thank you for that.

Please don't stop writing about movies, you're one of the only online critics I look forward to reading.

To further this plea I should say that I DID see the trailer several times, and I was totally ready to brush this one off, despite how much I love Knightley. For instance, the gag in the trailer with the radio disc jockey saying something along the lines of "tune in for the countdown to the end of days while we bring you all the classics" made me cringe, and there's no way I could be expected to take these characters seriously if that's how the END OF THE WORLD is being presumably treated in the film - like some clever punchline. Add to this the fact that we probably don't need another movie about the END OF THE WORLD - humorous or not - for the next couple decades.

But you write so well about movies that I now want to see it, even just to observe some of the nuances you've written about.

So, thanks, Jason! Keep on writing!

Anonymous said...

Despite the terrible movies and characters he's been asked to play (Noah's ark), Steve Carell definitely has an appeal, and I think it's cool if he's starting to get more serious roles opposite someone like Knightley. I'll definitely check this movie out.

Anyways, just saw Moonrise Kingdom yesterday and I am looking forward to your analysis.

Stay frosty

Jason Bellamy said...

Michael, Jake and Anon: I certainly wasn't fishing for compliments or encouragement when I made that reference about giving up writing about movies (if I was, that would have been in the lead; not buried in the comments section). Still, your very kind words and support gave me a boost that I think I needed, without quite realizing it.

The explanation for my remark starts with a busy work and life schedule that has made it difficult to have a 'head space' for movies this year (never mind the time to write about them). That explains why posts have been nonexistent in recent weeks. Simply put, my brain has been fried.

How does Moonrise Kingdom fit in? I saw it several weeks ago. And I loved it. And yet I had zero desire to write about it. For someone who (a) loves movies and (b) loves writing about movies, that was a disconcerting feeling, and I admit I wondered if it was a sign: maybe my brain wasn't fried ... maybe I just didn't have anything to say anymore.

The good news is that those busy weeks passed, and after a while my brain started to heal, and for the moment at least I feel like I have things I want to write. There are still busy patches for me coming up, but I hope to stay better connected, because ultimately I'm happier that way (and I might borrow a page out of the Film Doc's book and hammer out some 'notes' rather than official reviews if I think that can help keep up the momentum when times are busy).

All of this is more than I intended to write on this subject, but that's the background for that comment. Thanks again for your concern and support. Most of all, thanks for reading.

Mike said...

I personally think she's a beauty.