“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” released in 2012 and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is the first movie I would very very highly recommend, yet advise against watching. Why? Because, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it is at its base a devastating critique of literally all human endeavor. And for that, we owe it a debt of gratitude.

The film centers around a despondent guy named Dodge (Steve Carell) whose wife leaves him moments after they both learn an asteroid is inescapably hurtling towards earth, destined to destroy humanity. The inhabitants of Earth all respond to this news in different ways–suicide, bacchanalia, sobbing, rioting–and the film follows Dodge and his sudden acquaintance Penny (Keira Knightley) as they attempt to reconcile themselves with the things in life they know, or at least strongly believe–or, really, have mainly gotten used to believing–are important.

Without getting into a huge iteration of the plot, or for that matter ruining the innumerable plot twists or mind-curdling ending, I must commend Scafaria, the perfect cast, and the able crew of the film for crafting such a flawlessly forward-moving film with the utmost craft. In my measure, “Seeking a Friend” is the sister film of “The Truman Show,” that late-90s classic that is, technically, science fiction (as is this film) but stands separately on such a poignant and succinct “what if…” premise as to transcend genre and enter the realm of a purely expressed thought, devoid of any preconception or high-concept theory for its full effect.

In that film, Jim Carrey (another comedian-turned-“serious actor”), plays Truman, a thirty-year-old man who realizes his entire reality is a finite constructed environment, the purpose of which is to entertain people as a 24-hour reality show. With distinct phildickian flair, the film asks “what is reality?” and provides very few answers besides, perhaps, the unknown, or freedom, two concepts clearly analytically linked.

Truman’s life consists of work, friends, a marriage, a house, all of the things we consider basically central to happiness and normalcy (at least in America). Everything absent from his life–war, unhappiness, disease, conflict of any kind–are identified as undesirable. But Truman has dreams and feelings that extend beyond the simple confines of a conflict-free existence. He wants the unknown, he wants freedom. And Normalcy itself–and the endless quest to obtain it, and the society that perpetuates it, and the rewards it offers–are shown to be escapist dreams of mundaneity, true certainty and “happiness” an illusion of the only half-living.

“Seeking a Friend” asks “what is real” on less of a physical level and more of an emotional level: what is real to me? What is important? With only 2 weeks to live, what is the least familiar to Dodge and Penny is suddenly the most important. The unknown, the possibilities, not necessarily experiencing them all but simply knowing they exist…this is more important than the familiar, and the film asks us to remember this and act on it.

In this way, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is one of the most challenging films I have seen in a long time. It projects very strong influences, three in particular that I want to discuss. John Cassavetes, whose “Faces,” “Husbands,” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” demonstrate the sad emptiness of American life as it exists even for those who cleave most closely to its ideals of hard work and rugged individualism. This emptiness stems partially from what is widely agreed is simply part of the “human experience;” life is unfulfilling, dull, painful, superficial, and that’s just “the way it is.” But, in the traditions of New Hollywood, Cassavetes reveals that our society actually creates these unfortunate circumstances of our existence, appearing to reflect our nature when in fact it essentially engineers it. “Seeking a Friend” lays bare the strange alienated emptiness of our social reality in the midst of its total destruction, from caring about personal health, to the health of one’s lawn, to jobs and status, to family.

Pointing out the influence of Ingmar Bergman in any current film is just approximately redundant, since either Bergman’s style or references to it (be they tongue-in-cheek, as in “I am Curious,” to overt and self-professed, as in “Interiors”) penetrate so much of film’s consciousness. “Seeking a Friend” may not know that it is conversing with “The Seventh Seal,” and “Cries and Whispers,” but the awareness of mortality is the soul of this film as it is in any of those films, and is just as central to the plot. Like Anders Ek’s spiritually discouraged priest in “Cries,” we too spend much of “Seeking a Friend” wondering why God (or whatever) feels the need to rend so much of life as insufferable heartache, boredom, loss, and sadness, ultimately all to be lost. Like Antonius Block, Dodge and Penny bide their time and make what progress they can on a road they both know to be short and incomplete, as though the mere act of wanting to live, to continue the experience of humanity, is enough to affect anything in the slightest.

And the afore-referenced Woody Allen, who receives his own filmic allusion in the form of a small, practically incidental but comedically emphasized line from “Annie Hall” regarding a therapist who wants Annie to see her “five times a week.” The exact same wording is used in this film in reference to Penny’s shortlived therapy experience, to which Penny responds by pointing out the therapist’s apparently ample need for human contact. “I would never want to be part of any club that would have someone like me for a member,” Alvie Singer states in “Annie Hall.” Both Penny and Dodge embody this “value system.” While his friends are drinking and screwing away their mortal terror, Dodge chooses to be alone, to ponder his wife who just left him and the life that’s about to be taken from him. He seeks what’s missing, what’s rejected him, in these final moments on earth. Not what he has.

“Seeking a Friend” clarifies a few things about life on earth. 1) It has no inherent meaning. 2) Someday it will end. 3) These are reasons to live fully and joyously, not sadly and cynically. And 4) Society, as it is, doesn’t allow us to live fully and joyously; only when things are about to end, when “nothing matters,” does everything become possible, does “human nature” actually evolve. Only when everything we’ve always been told is important is revealed to be as meaningless and insignificant as we ourselves are, do we see ourselves as free. And as Truman Burbank before them, Dodge and Penny step out of the realm of the comfortable and safe, and even farther, out of self-destruction, look into each other’s eyes, and see a new human nature, one without a hidden agenda, without fear, without winners or losers, without hope. And for that, it is at last an honest picture of reality. No wonder it didn’t win any Oscars.

Other things I liked: product placement was done tastefully. Co-stars, like Patton Oswalt, Rob Cordry, and one big one I don’t want to spoil as Dodge’s father, are well-chosen and funny. Brace yourself, and watch it without any distractions.

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