It turned out that this unassuming little comedy was both funnier and more tragic than I anticipated, that the two leads delivered better and different performances than one might have expected, and that the story and the imagery have stayed with me all week, enough to make me want to write up my thoughts on it even though it's a bit late.
The story is very simple: an asteroid is headed toward earth, nothing we humans can do, and so the world, that is to say earth, will be over in approximately three weeks. What makes it clear from the first 2 minutes of the movie that this is not your average movie about the end of the world are three things.
First, we are told that the asteroid is "commonly known as Mathilda." Despite it's extreme premise, this movie is utterly grounded in reality. Of course we would name the asteroid. We are forever giving natural disasters female given names, in some attempt to domesticate them or make them seem more like wrathful goddesses and not random events, maybe. The asteroid that will signal our final end is no exception.
Second, the terrible news is delivered in the same breath as the movie's first joke, which you've already seen if you've seen the preview, but which I won't spoil here just in case. Suffice it to say that we do not hear the news from a serious American newscaster or from a clipped BBC voice; we hear it from a classic rock radio station host. This is a movie about a world without hierarchies, where authority and order lose all meaning. It's a slightly anarchic film, both in subject and treatment. So it's perfectly appropriate for a radio host to take over the duties of a newscaster and twist them out of all recognition.
Finally, again within the first couple of minutes, we see our hero, Dodge react to the radio announcement with just about exactly no emotion. His wife's reaction is fairly explosive: she makes a run for it into the night. But in response to both these slightly big events in his life - he's going to die soon and his wife has just left him - Dodge just kind of carries on numbly. He goes to work. He goes to the gym. He talks to the cleaning lady, who is also carrying on, although with a little more good humor.
The movie's real brilliance is to show the way that individuals react to a crisis. And, surprise, surprise, they don't all react the same way. Much of the film takes place on the road, as Dodge and his neighbor, Penny, drive around in search of their various last-minute desires. Their story is wonderful and their growth as characters fascinating, but there is also another story going on in the background of every shot. Through the windows of the car, we see the world reacting to its end in the most diverse way imaginable, with despair, elation, determination, and sometimes even, incredibly, unfailing hope. I imagine that the prep for this movie involved the filmmakers asking every one they knew what they would do, given three weeks until the end of the world, and then collating all those answers into the background of this movie.
In most movies about the end of the world, whether it's by alien attack or lethal virus or something else, people tend to react to extreme circumstances with extreme emotions, usually limited to a set of two or three extremes - violence, heroism, or terror. But in this movie, some people react with perfect mundanity. They mow the lawn. They go to the beach. They get married. They have a dinner party. They try to figure out, in a bumbling way, how to best spend the rest of their lives. They try to distill their priorities and values down to one thing that they can accomplish in just three weeks, and of course their efforts go awry, and they realize (some of them at least) that this is an impossible task. So they just keep living until they, and everybody else, die.
Basically, this is a movie that takes a universal human preoccupation - we all have a limited time on earth, how best to spend it? - and ekes out its essence and delivers it in a very small, modest package. The story of the end of the world turns out not to be any different from the story of one person dying prematurely from disease or some other misfortune. What's great about this movie is that it hits just the right tone in dealing with this tragedy, which is both large-scale and small-scale, both communal and individual at the same time.
Don't be fooled by my philosophizing, though. This is not remotely a philosophical movie. It's a comedy, after all. You might have noticed that all of the stills I found feature just two people: Dodge and Penny (and occasionally their dog). For most of the movie, it's just them, and their relationship is wonderfully and hilariously portrayed. The only other movie in which I've seen Steven Carell is Little Miss Sunshine, but as Dodge I think he has a lot more nuance. His melancholy is very complex, it comes and goes, it has multiple sources, and it feels very real.
Her character also lends the movie another great charm, which is its soundtrack. Penny is a lover and connoisseur of records, and the movie is filled with extended sequences in which we get to hear classic songs at full length and without interference. The movie opens with the meaninglessness of music, as the radio show host announces both a disaster and the next song in the same breath. But it ends with the great meaningfulness of music, as a record plays and evokes for us an entire relationship, and entire person, and both a deep sadness and a comfort about what the end of the world actually looks like and sounds like.