‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’ and the Heroism of Niceness

In our age of anti-heroes and fabulous villains, niceness has often fallen along the wayside as an embodiment of dull virtue, evidence of a distasteful unwillingness to commit to strong emotion or decisive action. It’s no mistake that Steve Carrell’s emerged as a surprisingly significant movie star during this past decade. He’s the one person who can get away with making nice interesting, the end goal of hard-fought battles for control in a world that often takes advantage of or mocks decency. And Carell’s rarely used his core strength to better effect than in Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, a lovely, emotionally precise apocalypse romantic comedy that seems at unfortunate risk of being drowned out by this summer’s louder, cruder entertainments.

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Seeking a Friend begins with a news announcement that immediately sets it apart from other movies about the potential end times: “The final mission to save mankind has failed.” Upon hearing that awful pronouncement, Dodge’s (Carell) wife Linda bolts from the car they’ve pulled over to the side of the road to hear the radio report on a last-ditch effort to divert an asteriod that’s headed towards earth with cataclysmic consequences. She, as it turns out with, wants to spend her final month on earth with someone other than her husband.

But Dodge wasn’t harboring a secret yearning—unlike the other guests at a dinner party thrown by his unhappily married friends, a very funny Connie Britton and Rob Corddry, he doesn’t want to have an orgy or try heroin—or an alternate plan. So he goes about his job as an insurance adjustor at an increasingly-depleted office, telling callers “Sorry, sir, I’m afraid that’s not covered under your current policy. Yes, the Armageddon package is extra,” and attending meetings where is boss lets the dwindling staff “know of a few positions in upper management that have become available. Anyone want to be Chief Financial Officer?”

It seems Dodge will continue to wind down the end of his life and everyone else’s with these small acts of decency—he adopts an abandoned dog as his sole act of adventure, and tries, unsuccessfully, to convince his housekeeper to spend more time with her family—until a neighbor he’s never spoken with breaks up with her boyfriend and ends up crying on his fire escape. The real source of her heartache, it turns out, is that she isn’t going to be able to spend her last days with her family. “I missed two planes,” Penny sobs. “I missed them all. The end of the world and I’m still fifteen minutes late.” Along with her woes, Penny brings Dodge’s undelivered mail, which includes a letter from a woman he loved and lost years ago, giving him sudden forward momentum. Penny has a car, and Dodge knows someone with a plane, and they strike a bargain: Penny will help Dodge find his old girlfriend, and he will help her make one last attempt to cross the Atlantic home to England.

What’s striking about their roadtrip is its warmth. When they’re arrested for speeding, another cop lets them out of jail in the morning with an apology and a plea for understanding: his colleague is reacting badly to the end times and trying to restore as much order to his universe as he can. Dodge and Penny stop by a Friendsy’s restaurant where the employees are hilariously, cultishly high and reveling, determined to satisfy as many customers as possible before they close forever. “Everyone’s welcome!” the host tells them. ” A dude brought in a wolf last week.” And they’re brought closer, and Dodge comes entirely out of his shell in an almost worldless sequence when he and Penny run across what appears to be a mass baptism on a gorgeous beach. The scene could have been played for sneers or rank sentiment, but instead, it’s a quiet testament to the power of connection. Who wouldn’t want to spend one last perfect day at the beach with someone they love before the world ends, surrounded by people who are eager to share the small bounties in their possession?

The fact that the end is inevitable liberates Seeking a Friend from the cliched, last-minute heroics that consume so many apocalypse movies. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the world to keep on turning, but those stories are in service of future love and kindness, rather than appreciating what you have. The movie gently pokes fun at that kind of planning when Dodge and Penny stop by to see one of Penny’s old boyfriends, a hyper-prepared survivalist who asks Dodge to convince Penny to stay in his bunker because “Can we restart society without her? Sure, but she deserves to be one of the top-quality females in contention.” Seeking a Friend is a movie about the people who aren’t really in contention, and about the fact that whether you can save the world or not, it’s possible to be the hero of your own life.