“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” the directorial debut of writer Lorene Scafaria (she also wrote “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), has a premise that, if handled correctly, could really shake up romantic comedy conventions in new and exciting ways. It’s set during the final weeks of our planet’s life, as a killer asteroid rockets toward earth and the basic functions of society start to decay and fall apart. It’s sort of like “Melancholia” if the wedding section had been a screwball comedy, or maybe if you wanted “Armageddon” to be more like “Crazy Stupid Love.” And “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” while occasionally punctuated with poignancy and darkness, never fully engages with the niftiness of its concept. It’s ultimately too cute to really be about anything, a clever premise lost in a sea of apocalyptically bland romantic comedy conventions.
As the movie opens, our hero, Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell), is listening to a radio broadcast announcing that the final attempts to destroy an earth-ending asteroid have failed. The planet has a few weeks to live. His wife (played by real-life wife Nancy Carell), flees, leaving him to face the apocalypse alone. He deals with the news in the most Steve Carell-ian way possible; mainly to mope around and look at things quizzically and speak in a monotone that suggests passion once filled his lungs where now resides pure emptiness. Truthfully, it’s hard to differentiate the Steve Carell from the first twenty minutes of “Crazy Stupid Love” from the Steve Carell here, and while there are some occasional good jokes (a coworker at Carell’s nondescript insurance agency says, “Anyone want to be CFO?”), this section of the movie is tough to get through – it never seems edgy enough or all that interesting.
After going to a party that goes horribly awry, with the cracks in societal norms starting to form (“Somebody brought heroin!”), Carell notices his young neighbor crying on their fire escape. (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is set in New York but painfully, painfully filmed in Los Angeles). It’s Penny (Keira Knightley), a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend (Adam Brody, Scafaria’s real life beau) and is distraught at the prospect of not seeing her parents again before the world goes kaboom (they’re still in England). Penny, conveniently, gets all of Dodge’s mail and shows him a letter from his high school sweetheart, expressing regret that they never reconnected (“They all left, she was the first,” is how he explains her). Dodge proposes a plan – they’ll travel together, first so that Dodge can reconnect with his ex-flame, and then to Dodge’s friend, who has access to a plane, so Penny can see her family one last time.
The rest of the movie plays as a kind of picaresque, pre-apocalyptic road movie, with Carrel and Knightley getting into a series of comic misadventures. Some of these episodes are howlingly funny, like when they visit a TGI Friday’s-style restaurant that soon devolves into some weird orgy (kudos to T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs for absolutely killing it), others are more morose and melancholic (like when they’re picked up by a suicidal trucker played by William Petersen) and almost all, as you can tell, are embroidered with a cameo of some weight (we’re not going to ruin any more here). Throughout these vignettes, we get the gradual sense of society’s decay, although sometimes the world seems to be doing just fine, with people mowing their lawns and taking out the trash. Some of these decisions must surely have been budgetary, but it still feels like a missed opportunity that the situation never becomes so hectic that you actually fear for the characters’ lives. There are bumps along the road movie road, but nothing more, nothing less.
And it’s a shame, too. The early Petersen section introduces the idea of people who hire assassins to kill them before they can off themselves. It’s a darkly intriguing notion and one that seems to promise a certain threat level on top of the giant asteroid hurtling towards earth, but nothing ever comes of it. By the time they get into their next mishap, it’s already gone. It doesn’t help that a countdown clock, which was a big deal earlier in the movie, not only doesn’t make an appearance, but the days seem to be off from the title card clock and what characters are referencing within the movie.
But the biggest crime is how easily, as the film glides along, it slips into conventional romantic comedy plot mechanics. It’s a movie whose situation already frees it from the required signposts of most romantic comedies. After all, this is a story whose only conclusion (if it doesn’t totally wimp out), is the end of life on earth. That buys you a certain amount of leniency. Except that “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” doesn’t utilize that leniency, and the boring tropes start to pile on top of one another – misunderstandings, heroically selfless acts, and a last minute reprieve. (More annoying is the fact that all the road movie work is undone, with characters showing up at previous locations as if no time would have to pass for them to return. Maybe, like in “The Muppets,” the characters travel by map.) Carell (age: 49) and Knightley (age: 27) already make an icky couple, and the couple is made infinitely ickier by the fact that, from a narrative standpoint, there’s no real reason for them to get together. The platonic nature of their relationship is (initially) what made the movie so refreshing. When they start making gooey eyes at each other and talking about finally meeting their soul mate right before it’s all over, you want to give up. As well acted and beautifully shot (by David Gordon Green regular Tim Orr) and (admittedly) occasionally clever the script is, none of it is enough. Bring on the apocalypse. [C+]