Keira Knightley as Penny
Steve Carell as Dodge
Melanie Lynskey as Karen
Adam Brody as Owen
Gillian Jacobs as Katie
Connie Britton as Diane
Patton Oswalt as Roache
T.J. Miller as Chipper Host
Melinda Dillon as Rose
William Petersen as Trucker
Rob Corddry as Warren
Rob Huebel as Jeremy
Derek Luke as Speck
Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria
The world is going to end in three weeks and insurance salesman Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) has just been going about his normal day-to-day life after his wife leaves him. An encounter with his flaky neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) sends the two of them on a road trip to find Dodge’s lost love, a high school sweetheart who wrote him a letter he only received three months later due to Penny’s irresponsibility.
The end of the world has become quite prominent in recent movies ranging from Roland Emmerich’s “2012” to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” and first-time director Lorene Scafaria, who previously adapted “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” for the screen, makes a strong directorial debut using it as a backdrop for a quirky romantic road comedy that owes more to “Garden State” than it does to the usually gloomy apocalyptic thriller.
It starts out as a dark comedy with lots of edgy laughs as we see different people preparing for an asteroid that will hit the earth in three weeks. Steve Carell’s insurance salesman Dodge Petersen is just continuing his humdrum life as normal even after his wife has left him. He ends up at an end-of-the-world party thrown by his friend Warren, played by Rob Corddry, who has taken the ultimate “I just don’t give a sh*t anymore” attitude, which is shared by many of the other partygoers. Dodge just can’t get into that mindset and when he heads home, an encounter with his emotional neighbor Penny, played by Keira Knightley, brings them together on a road trip to find closure, he with his high school sweetheart he hasn’t seen in 18 years, and reuniting Penny with her family in England.
Whether or not you like Steve Carell’s more low-key characters–think “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Dan in Real Life”–may play a part in whether you buy his performance as Dodge and are willing to follow him on this journey. Keira Knightley’s flaky record-collecting Penny comes from the same mold as Natalie Portman’s character in “Garden State” or Rachel Weisz from “The Brothers Bloom,” a woman we all know so well even if we never know what they’re going to say or do next. They’re quite a potent combination and you never grow tired of their relationship because Scafaria ably allows their story to unfold in an organic way as their road trip puts them in contact with different people dealing with the end of the world from William Petersen as a philosophical trucker to T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacob (“Community”) as the far-too-friendly staff of a chain restaurant in danger of turning into a full-blown orgy. Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt absolutely kill in their short sections of the movie, and you’ll probably wish their characters played a bigger part or had some sort of callback.
Few filmmakers outside of maybe Cameron Crowe use music as well as Scafaria does in her film from the instant laugh that comes from hearing the Beach Boy’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” after a horrifying news report about the end of the world to the beauty of The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” and the Walker Brother’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” later in the film, both which bring an added poignancy to later scenes.
What ends up happening is that the film evolves from being a dark and cynical comedy in the first act to something quite warm and sweet by the end as Dodge and Penny grow closer through their encounters without losing sight of their initial goal. If you’re a hopeless romantic, you’ll be on board all the way even if the very ending of the film may throw a few people for a loop if they’ve prepared themselves for the typical rom-com ending.
The Bottom Line:
This is a truly wonderful debut from Lorene Scafaria, taking a simple premise and turning it into the type of movie that may take time in finding its audience but will find its share of fans due to the inimitable chemistry between Carell and Knightley.