“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” valiantly tries to inject a familiar premise with renewed emotional discernment and instead flails about in search of it. The directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), “Seeking a Friend” follows a pair of would-be lovers on a meandering road trip that takes place in the weeks leading up to the destruction of the Earth, a tried-and-true set-up that provides a simple backdrop for exploring lost souls in search of meaning in their final days. While smartly observant in individual moments, however, Scafaria’s thinly conceived story fails to deepen its scenario beyond the basic allegorical possibilities of the oncoming apocalypse.
Cast in the same disaffected everyman role he embodies to a fault every time out, Steve Carrell plays somber insurance salesman Dodge, whose wife promptly abandons him upon news of Earth’s imminent demise. With 21 days to go before the cataclysmic event, “Seeking a Friend” launches Dodge’s titular mission through a series of title cards that lead up to the final moments. That recurring device creates the perception of a gradual build to an expected revelatory payoff, but the movie never rises to the challenge. In the process of relying alternately on poetic restraint and gags, the film’s emotional grounding slowly dissipates.
Before “Seeking a Friend” stumbles, however, it pitches a tone between comedy and tragedy that holds unique appeal. The movie’s first act chronicles Dodge’s homegrown pity party as he disaffectedly roams about a hedonistic bash thrown by his more upbeat pal (Rob Corddry) before heading home to sulk. Once there, two events instigate sudden change. First, he encounters the teary-eyed Penny (Keira Knightley), a delicate British woman stuck in a bland relationship with her musician boyfriend (Adam Brody) who’s wishing she could spend her final days with her family.
Around the same time, Dodge discovers a note from his high school sweetheart and brashly determines his life will be complete if he can reunite with her in his hometown. When a neighborhood riot forces their evacuation, Penny and Dodge collectively ditch their homes and make a split-second deal: She’ll drive him to see his former love, if he’ll help her make it back to England.
So begins an episodic odyssey enacted through a series of uneven vignettes, some more engaging than others, generally depicted with an uncertain mixture of bittersweet yearning and gravitas. The misadventure begins when the pair encounters a man who has placed a hit on himself, but nothing that follows goes so dark. Notwithstanding the perpetual tonal confusion, it becomes increasingly clear that “Seeking a Friend” strives for offbeat notes more often than it hits them.
Instead, Scafaria demonstrates a penchant, initially illustrated by her “Nick & Norah” script, for small, irreverent exchanges that should seem farcical and instead contain a sustained emotional impact. (Other than Wes Anderson few can truly pull off this combo, but many have tried.) A brief visit to the bomb shelter maintained by Penny’s ex-boyfriend seems positioned for a throwaway gag but instead eloquently displays Dodge’s continual lack of self-esteem. The movie could have used more scenes like this, which — as in “Nick and Norah” — provide a stronger connective tissue than the narrative.
But “Nick and Norah” uses a delicate love story as its backbone; “Seeking a Friend” only manages to cobble one together late in the game. Scafaria hints at plenty of potent material that never fully takes shape. Her single best creation is a T.G.I.Friday’s parody called “Friendsys” filled with a pleasure-seeking waitstaff intent on enjoying every last moment with an absurd degree of exuberance.
A “Friendsys” movie might work wonders, but other sequences reek of half-formed ideas. The abrupt arrival of Martin Sheen as Dodge’s estranged father stands out more for its randomness than relevance to the plot. Carrell and Knightley invest in their archetypical characters as much as they can, as do the handful of other bit players dropped into various scenes (Mark Moses, as the devout anchorman seen on the TV throughout the movie, lands one of the few genuinely moving scenes with his final exit).
Ultimately, though, “Seeking a Friend” fails as both actors’ showcase and parable because it suffers from a lack of original ideas. The focus on behavioral minutiae in an apocalypse scenario has simply been done too frequently for Scafaria’s take to provide anything fresh. Its closing scenes call to mind countless End-Of tales with far superior vision, from Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth” to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Don McKellar’s “Last Night.” In each case, the process of making peace with life when faced with imminent death is taken out of its imaginary scenario and imbued with extreme depth through the use of powerfully expressive close-ups. In “Seeking a Friend,” however, the movie’s potential for depth ends long before the world does.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases “Seeking a Friend” in several cities on June 22. Its star cast and quirky premise may help it perform solidly in its opening weekend and for some weeks following, but much of its potential for longterm success will depend on critical response, which is destined to be mixed.