Apocalype movies are a venerable enough genre (and reliable enough as box office cash spigots) to support a few lightweight, funny-sad-romantic entries every once in a while. Given the right touch, this approach can be just the antidote to the idea-free, effects-laden blockbusters and art house pity parties that dominate the form; it’s conceivable and even reassuring that the end of things might be muted rather than top volume.
It’s too bad, then, that Lorene Scafaria, screenwriter of the chipper, inexplicably lauded Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and first-time director of this Steve Carell summer-vehicle misfire, lacks that touch. By turns bizarrely affectless and then prattlingly manic, much like its dual protagonists, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World unfolds during the wind-down of civilization as we know it. A massive asteroid is three weeks away from impact with Earth (a TV-news voiceover at the start of the film describes the failure of an Armageddon-like space mission to obliterate the thing), and the world—or at least Southern California subbing for suburban New Jersey—copes, or doesn’t, with imminent demise.
Insurance salesman Dodge Petersen (Carell at his most downcast) continues to slog to the office and gym; Elsa (Tonita Castro), his housekeeper, keeps showing up to clean; his married friends (Rob Corddry and Connie Britton) throw dinner parties that have all the end-of-the-world abandon of an aborted swingers confab circa 1982; and so on. The odd high-rise jumper and traffic snarl aside, things go on pretty much as normal. Dodge, whose wife has had the good sense to run off into the night, meets perky neighbor Penny (a seriously unwound Keira Knightley) just as riots break out, and the pair flees—along with a charming terrier unloaded on Dodge by a stranger—to track down his first love and a possible charter flight to the U.K., so Penny can spend doomsday with the folks.
The reckonings and realizations fly once Seeking a Friend hits the road, and for all the absurdity of its characters achieving clear-eyed, perfectly articulated peace with their past demons in this stretch of the movie (I’m guessing pants-shitting panic would be more the norm), it’s a relief after the excruciatingly unfunny first act. Scafaria, who also wrote the film, floats the notion that sticking to routine in the presence of overwhelming chaos is a way of giving life meaning. That’s fair, but she conveys this with so little irony or insight that Dodge’s workmates, domestic servant, and the gaggle of randy, dedicated T.G.I. Friday’s–esque waitstaff he and Penny encounter on their journey come off more as morons than heroes. (Never mind the weird class contempt that’s attached to these characters.) This is banal, flinch-inducing stuff, so by the time Martin Sheen turns up down the highway as Dodge’s long-lost dad, it’s a breath of fresh air in spite of his speechifying.
This is unfortunate, because as Scafaria captures one-on-one intimacy with frankness and finesse, she manages to draw something real and touching from Knightley, who otherwise can’t stop mugging, and even the largely unearned poignancy of the movie’s climactic scene packs a punch. (On the other hand, Scafaria seems indifferent to visual innovation.) What’s missing from the story is the one element any apocalypse narrative suffocates without: a sense of urgency. By putting so much effort into straddling the lines between darkness and whimsy and profundity and absurdity, Seeking a Friend achieves the colorless tedium of a safe, dozy dream of catastrophe instead of anything like the real deal.