Instead of following a ragtag team of brutes hired for a suicide mission to destroy an Earth-bound meteor Seeking a Friend for the End of the World plays out the apocalyptic "what if?" scenario from the everyman vantage point. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) the film pairs average joe Dodge (Steve Carell) with wallflower Penny (Keira Knightley) for a journey across the east coast a hunt for Dodge's college sweetheart. Scafaria takes a character-first approach to her anti-blockbuster examining the end of the world with a pitch black sense of humor. But the road trip loses steam as it chugs along with the film's insistence to avoid Hollywood disaster tropes taking a toll on the entertainment value. Dodge and Penny are so normal they aren't that interesting to watch. In turn neither is Seeking a Friend.
Worse for Dodge than the whole "destruction of humanity" thing is the fact that he's facing it alone; his wife leaves him he has no real family and he hates nearly all of his friends. While everyone he knows is either hooking up or shooting up in hopes of going out on a high note Dodge buckles under the weight of an existential crisis that feels all too familiar. To his rescue is next-door neighbor Penny who insists the two hit the road together to go find Dodge's one-that-got-away. They don't have much of a choice as New York City is quickly overrun by Malatov cocktail-hurling riots.
When the catastrophe and societal chaos is seen through Dodge's eyes and Carell's complex interpretation of the straight man Scafaria hits all the marks. Watching Dodge tell his cleaning lady to go home because "What's the point?" is heartbreaking while his good friend's descent into frat boy madness for the same reasons nails mankind's vile tendencies. And through it all it's funny thanks to Carell's impeccable timing. When Dodge is eventually paired up with Penny the film meanders the two never unearthing what it is about each other that keeps them sticking together. The duo run into a kindly truck driver (who's hired an assassin to off him when he's unaware) a TGIFriday's-esque restaurant full of zany drugged up waiters and even one of Penny's ex-boyfriends whose locked down with automatic rifles and Ruffles chips in anticipation of the end. But Dodge and Penny's quest is mostly about the in-between moments the quitter grounded human reactions to the apocalypse. Even with great performers at the helm Seeking a Friend doesn't organically shape those moments so much as contrive them. In one scene Penny fondly recalls the wonders of listening to music on vinyl Dodge listening carefully and learning. It's a soft and low key discussion perfect juxtaposition against the big-scale problem at hand but when a twenty-something is explaining records to a guy nearing 50 it comes off as twee instead of truthful. The problem infiltrates most of Seeking a Friend's character moments.
Scafaria has an ear and eye for comedy but Seeking a Friend boldly reaches for something more. Sadly ambition doesn't translate to success a messy tonal mix that fail to make it all that engaging or emotional. Carell and Knightley serve the material as best they can but this is the end of the world an even that requires a little weight a little sensationalism and a little more than a casual road movie.
As devourers of pop culture we're quick to categorize our entertainment for our own safety. Comedy drama thriller sci-fi horror—everything we have the chance to consume has a label to ensure that we know exactly what we're getting.
Occasionally a movie defies classification. While not a revolutionary piece of cinema 50/50 is especially gratifying simply because of its abandonment of genre and the baggage that comes with owning one. The movie starts with a simple inciting incident: one day 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that he has a life-threatening tumor growing on his spine. Of course the news doesn't sit well with the public radio producer who's in the middle of work on an exciting piece for his station just adjusting to living with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and sees his life as a lengthy exciting prospect. Adam never smokes he waits to cross the street he always tucks his shirts in and keeps his sweater vests tidy—what did he do to deserve this?
But Adam doesn't go on a quest to find his true self or spend days writing a bucket list. He lives his life—and its friends and family who feel the tremors of his disease. Rachael quickly finds herself off balance and unable to cope with Adam's situation while his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) tries to coddle him finding a new opportunity she never found with her Alzheimer's-stricken husband. His co-workers throw him a guilt-induced party.
At a total loss Adam finds comfort in his pal Kyle (Seth Rogen essentially playing himself) who uplifts his spirits through dedication marijuana and loose women. Nothing seems to out-weigh the punch-in-the-gut feeling of losing his hair to chemotherapy or barely being able to walk around his house without feeling winded but Adam stays afloat thanks to Kyle's incessant goofiness and a newfound friendship in his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Equally out of water in her new job the two bond over their discovery of humanism in the scientific process of beating cancer and while the growth of their relationship is one of the few things in the film that feels remotely contrived it gives Adam hope in the face of his possibly-fatal surgery.
50/50 isn't sugar sweet nor is it stone cold serious. Director Jonathan Levine allows the events to unfold in a unique and reserved realism allowing the movie to bounce from laugh-out-loud funny (thanks in a large part to Rogen's star talent in a supporting role) to tearjerker drama without any broad segues. Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of modern cinema's best watchers the type of actor who can float through a picture without making too much a ruckus but who's identifiable and helps us understand his surroundings. But he fits right in to the Apatow-style comedy Rogen and Levine conjure up throughout the movie. In one scene Adam chows down on some pot brownies courtesy of his elderly chemo-mates (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) leading him to groove around the hospital hall spaced out and loving it. It's an uproarious moment but poignant too—finally Adam can let go of a bit of his grief.
Providing a foundation for 50/50's minimalist tactics are the supporting cast. Howard once again proves her versatility turning an unsympathetic character into a dimensionalized presence. What Rachael does in the film isn't admirable but thanks to Howard's performance not entirely unreasonable. Huston and Kendrick are strong and grounded enough that when Adam begins to check out of life as surgery looms they don't disappear from the film. But it's Rogen who really steals the show perhaps because his friend and 50/50 writer Will Reiser based the movie on their real life experiences but the comedy-first actor steps up later in the film when the weight of reality starts to bring everyone down.
50/50 isn't a comedy or a drama but a portrait of real people surviving real hardships. Shedding a few tears over the course of the film is perfectly acceptable—the jokes are that funny and the emotion that powerful.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Ronnie Barnhardt is a kickass shopping-mall head-security guard with severe delusions of power. He meets his match when a cynical police detective is called in to take care of business after Ronnie and his crew fail to stop a parking lot flasher and can’t foil a jewelry-store robbery. Determined to prove his worth in the trade and in his personal life Ronnie applies for a job as a cop pursues a cosmetics salesgirl and tries to solve some crimes using his own unorthodox methods.
WHO’S IN IT?
Tailor-made for the considerable comic talents of Seth Rogen Barnhardt is a funny Travis Bickel a guy with severe self-worth issues who carries on a dialogue with himself in his head. Unlike Paul Blart this is a mall cop out to maul first and ask questions later. Rogen fits the bill and singlehandedly makes it all worth seeing. Anna Faris as his prospective girlfriend is given lots of opportunities to overact — and takes all of them. Still she’s quite funny in a drunken dinner scene that ends with her passed out in the bedroom under Rogen’s huge girth. Ray Liotta pretty much walks through his role as the pro detective who thinks Barnhardt is a total joke. Michael Pena is strong as another security guard while twins John and Matt Yuan and Jesse Plemons are hilarious as their dim-witted mall cop colleagues. Although he only has a couple of scenes Aziz Ansari steals them both as a smart-aleck hanger-on. Celia Weston and Rogen as mother and son have some wonderfully droll moments together but it’s first-time actor Randy Gambill as the flasher who gets the real comic workout and exposes himself as one to watch (hopefully with his clothes back on next time).
A cynical acerbic attitude rules the day here and the idea of putting a real wacko in the mall-cop position has more bite than the PG-13 Blart a movie that was blessed with the likable presence of Kevin James but suffered major credibility lapses.
Writer/director Jody Hill had a great idea but too often goes for the easy joke or gross-out gag when he should have drifted straight into hell with this character and really let Rogen loose. It’s hilarious in parts but the overall tone is wildly uneven and not totally satisfying.
The final confrontation between Rogen and the flasher has to be seen to be believed and on its own more than enough to merit the film’s well-deserved restricted rating.
SHOULD THERE BE A SEQUEL?
Yes and it should pair Blart vs. Barnhardt in a food-court showdown. It could be the best thing since Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
As the film’s title indicates in no uncertain terms our heroine teenager Molly Hartley (Haley Bennett) is haunted by a tragic past that keeps coming back to torment her. Attempting to acclimate to a new school (Huntington Prep) Molly must deal with new classmates and also recurring bouts of nosebleeds and hallucinations -- particularly of her wild-eyed mother (Marin Hinkle) who had previously tried to stab her to death claiming that she was trying to save her from some sort of birthright. “The darkness is coming for you ” said Mom before plunging a pair of scissors into Molly’s chest. What’s really going on? Are Molly’s hallucinations of a psychotic or a supernatural nature? It takes a long while to get to that point by which time the answer should be obvious ... and long after audience interest has dwindled severely.
An interesting and attractive actress Haley Bennett (Music and Lyrics) doesn’t necessarily project the vulnerability that her tormented character would call for but she seems capable of carrying a film. Unfortunately this one lets her down -- and the problem lies entirely in the story. Everyone else in the cast is saddled with one-dimensional characters: Jake Weber as Molly’s perennially-worried dad; Chace Crawford as the resident hunk; Shanna Collins as a born-again classmate; and Shannon Marie Woodward as a more rebellious classmate. Ron Canada as the school superintendent is on and off the screen so fast one wonders why he bothered at all. There is however a nice if smallish turn by Nina Siemaszko as the school’s guidance counselor who’s clearly got her eye on these goings-on. The Haunting of Molly Hartley marks the feature directorial debut of Mickey Liddell who previously toiled on the small screen as a producer of Everwood and Jack & Bobby two shows with prominent teenaged characters -- so he has experience in the field. There are some interesting camera angles and technically the film is competent enough but the story unravels at the midway point and Liddell is unable to stop the skid. By the film’s (foregone) conclusion it’s begun to telegraph its shocks and its plot twists with increasing regularity. It’s well-made but it’s also flat. There’s not a particularly high body count but there’s obvious editing in some of the more violent scenes -- clearly an attempt to earn the film a PG-13 rating which is a far friendlier proposition at the box-office where this should earn some decent coin from the horror faithful.
The tenets of the martial arts as they apply to Fred Simmons (co-writer Danny McBride)--a self-absorbed self-deluded strip-mall Tae Kwon Do instructor--are explored in this appealing indie farce. When Fred’s not belittling or berating his students he’s espousing his loony philosophies and demonstrating his own (mediocre) prowess at Tae Kwon Do--utterly convinced that he is the living embodiment of the art. Life throws him a curveball--or gives him a karate chop to the neck if you will--when he discovers that his bimbo wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostick) has been playing around. His inner strength shaken to the core Fred tries to apply the very teachings he espouses to his own mess of a life succeeding only in making it messier. Nevertheless as befits come-from-behind stories like this fate has a way of smiling on the underdog--no matter how stupid he may be. McBride soon to be seen in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express plays it perfectly straight as the pompous boor who’s not nearly as smart sexy or savvy as he thinks he is. Instead he’s smug smarmy and would be utterly unbearable were it not for the clueless charm that McBride plays him with. It’s a splendid comedic performance. Bostick complements McBride perfectly as the bubble-headed salon-tanned stereotypical dumb-blonde wife who just can’t seem to keep her hands to herself--and we’re not talking about the martial (or even the marital) arts. Ben Best who also collaborated on the screenplay with McBride and Jody Hill comes into the game late as Fred’s chop-socky idol the equally smarmy Chuck “The Truck” Wallace whose own adherence to the contemplative and spiritual nature of the martial arts is as bogus as Fred’s. As the most stalwart of Fred’s students Spencer Moreno and Carlos Lopez IV stand out with director Hill himself rounds out an enthusiastic cast of up-and-comers. The true success of the film is its confident execution which belies Hill’s first-timer status. The Foot Fist Way is consistently funny not because of the slapstick gags--although those work too--but in the pitch-perfect realization of characters that in other hands might well have been insufferable. Instead they’re amusing and appealing--even more so the worse they behave. The Hollywood landscape is littered with slob comedies that mistake lowbrow idiocy for inventiveness. The Foot Fist Way never makes that mistake and it moves speedily and entertainingly enough that its slow patches are quickly forgotten and forgiven.