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.
“My dick is going to get so wet tonight ” declares Costa the foul-mouthed ringleader of a trio of sex-starved teens in the opening moments of Project X the new “found-footage” comedy from director Nima Nourizadeh and producer Todd Phillips (The Hangover). Believe it or not this qualifies as one of his more charming moments in the film. All of 17 but blessed with an obnoxiousness lesser men would take decades to cultivate Costa (Oliver Cooper) is the perfect mascot for a film that makes no bones of its mostly prurient intentions proffering what is essentially a succession of debaucherous montages intermingled with uneven attempts at comedy and held together by the slimmest pretense of a plot.
Caustic as he is Costa at least exhibits something of a recognizable personality; the same cannot be said of his two cohorts the tubby dweeb J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) and the earnest blank Thomas (Thomas Mann). None of them seem to enjoy much in the way of popularity at their high school located in the fictional suburb of North Pasadena but Costa has a plan to fix that. On the occasion of his 17th birthday Thomas whose parents have conveniently departed for the weekend reluctantly agrees to host a party that Costa promises will be a “game-changer” for their lowly social status.
Hardly a game-changer is Project X’s script co-written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall which mostly treads a predictable teen-comedy path. At its outset the party appears to be a bust. Soon however hordes of eager revelers descend upon Thomas’ house and the event swiftly devolves into a festival of wanton hedonism that would impress Charlie Sheen. The orgy of booze drugs and sex is captured by Nourizadeh in one impressively slick sequence after another set to a vibrant soundtrack.
To maintain the guise of an actual movie – and to occupy us between shots of topless beauties downing tequila and frolicking in the pool – Project X tosses in a few familiar tropes to push its story along: an unstable drug-dealer bent on revenge a buzzkilling neighbor seeking to end the night’s festivities prematurely a budding but hesitant attraction between Thomas and his childhood friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). But the scenes are so hollow and contrived that you get the sense even the filmmakers don’t buy them and only added them to the film in a transparent ploy to forestall allegations of complete and utter vapidity. The efforts serve only to add a dash of the banal to the proceedings.
Project X’s natural forebears – R-rated teen comedies Superbad and American Pie – tempered their crudity and outrageousness with a surprising degree of depth and sincerity. Moreover they were actually funny. Project X is a shallow affair to be sure but a dearth of laughs is what ultimately dooms it. A belligerent little person who goes on a crotch-kicking spree after being tossed in an oven amounts to the film’s most sophisticated attempt at humor. More often it relies on recycled gags from previous films (including Phillips’ own library from Road Trip to The Hangover Part II) and Jackass-inspired mishaps.
The found-footage approach has proven to be a potent (if overused) tool in horror films but its utility in the service of comedy at least in the hands of Nourizadeh is limited. It mostly comes across as a needless gimmick good for marketing purposes but little else. Perhaps acknowledging as much Project X’s backup plan calls for an incessant raising of the stakes. As the once-innocuous gathering metastasizes into a fully-fledged riot one so dangerous that even the police dare not intervene the specter of parental disapproval gives way to the threat of incarceration and finally to the potential incineration of the entire neighborhood. The scale of the destruction is impressive – especially for such a (presumably) low-budget film – but like much of what precedes it almost entirely pointless.
Follow Thomas Leupp on Twitter.
Follow Hollywood.com on Twitter.
Like Sandy and Danny in Grease From Justin to Kelly's two main characters (American Idols Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini) are worlds apart: Justin's a party promoter hanging out in Miami for Spring Break; Kelly's a small-town Texas girl dragged there by her more adventurous friends. They fall madly in love after a 30-second dance number then spend the rest of the movie trying--and failing--to hook up. Contrary to the marketing behind this movie though that's where the comparisons with Grease end. From Justin to Kelly isn't a musical--it's a music video complete with MTV-style Spring Break beach parties and cellular phone "texting" as the driving force behind what little plot there is. It has the potential to be almost cultishly kitschy if the songs were even remotely interesting but they're just more of the same trite pop garbage we've come to expect from our American Idols. The songs have no connection to one another or to the plot itself and the lyrics rarely reflect the situation the characters are supposed to be singing about. Even if the songs were great and this film had a plot (they're not and it doesn't) the dance numbers look like they were choreographed by a kickboxing instructor not a dancer. On the plus side choreographer Travis Payne's athletic style may singlehandedly bring breakdancing back from its shallow '80s grave.
From Justin to Kelly is so bad it would be comical if the exploitation of two actually talented singers hadn't been so utterly complete. I mean we didn't really expect them to act but at least give them something to work with in between songs. Instead even the songs are crap and the dialogue that writer Kim Fuller (Spice World) gives the stars isn't just trite--it often makes no sense whatsoever. To wit: "We met at the beach. My friends call me Kelly for short." Short for what? Kelly? The transitions from dialogue into the songs are even worse if that's possible particularly for poor Justin. "There's definitely something going on between us you know?" he says then immediately bursts into song barking out the lyrics with such diva-esque force that if he'd really been singing to his lover he'd have burst her eardrums. Clarkson belts everything out with equal vigor--including her supposedly sweet solo number designed apparently to be a modern-day version of Olivia Newton-John's heartbreaking "Hopelessly Devoted to You." She's yawping so loudly that it's impossible to believe this is a devastated young girl who's lost her love. The only scene that remotely showcases Kelly's vocal talents comes when her good-girl character decides to let loose and party hardy at the pool with a big musical number "Must Be the Madness " which pays a bit of homage to its predecessors Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
Like the shifts from dialogue into song director Robert Iscove's shifts from scene to scene are abrupt to the point of disturbing; it's as if his editor made this pic in a DIY editing suite like iMovie with too-slow dissolves and a few thinly veiled blue screens. You expect the sign of the true amateur to appear at any moment: the ubiquitous "star wipe." And it would be remiss not to mention the completely ridiculous hovercraft race between Justin and his rival the interestingly named Luke--given the obvious if grossly misguided allusion to the pod race in Phantom Menace. There are only two reasons this movie gets even half a star. One is the fact that a minor character actually calls Justin "Sideshow Bob " a reference to the character from The Simpsons whom the almost American Idol oddly resembles instead of whispering it behind his back. The other is the bikinis which are incredibly let's say creative. But the rest of the costumes border on the ridiculous; in one splashy pool party number Clarkson's wearing a skirt made entirely of--get this--men's ties. By the time the big finale rolls around--a rendition of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)"--you'll be thinking that's the way you like this movie too--over.