In “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” boy meets girl — okay, make that middle-aged guy meets a much younger woman — only the twist is that the Apocalypse is near. In the context of there being only 21 days left for humanity, three weeks would make a really long term relationship, right? So you’d better make it a good one.
The trouble is, the relationship in “Seeking a Friend” is only so-so. Throwing Armageddon into a situational rom-com-cum-road-movie makes for an unstable mixture in screenwriter Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut. For one thing, it never really feels like the end is near. For that you need Bruce Willis and a team of CGI gurus. The apocalyptic theme also raises so many issues the film justifiably wants nothing to do with that the foundation for just about everything that happens is shaky.
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley star as the best-last-hope Manhattan couple whom the director sends out on a vague road trip that feels under motivated at best and poorly fabricated at worst. I suppose if great mirth and breath-taking drama had ensued, this would be justification enough for the absurd premise. But the comedy is too anemic to win many laughs and the drama ultimately tilts heavily into sentimentality.
You get an idea, however, of what Scafaria may have been aiming for in an early sequence where Carell’s sad-sack insurance agent Dodge attends a dinner party hosted by close friends. News has just arrived that a last-ditch effort to intercept and destroy a 70-mile asteroid heading on a collision course with Earth has failed. This causes Dodge’s wife (played by Nancy Carell, Steve’s real-life wife) to leave him on the spot.
Anyway, these close friends (marvelously played by Rob Corddry and Connie Britton) have a party where they try to hook him up with a gal pal for a little pre-apocalypse sex, encourage their kids to enjoy alcohol, the husband sees no reason to ever stop drinking and the wife makes a pass at Dodge. What’s a little debauchery at the end of days? This has just the right black-comedy tone the rest of the movie so desperately lacks.
Scafaria, who wrote the fine comedy “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” takes only one stab at creating a somewhat realistic end-of-days scenario. She brings Dodge and Knightley’s downstairs neighbor Penny together when a riot breaks out nearby with a mob willing to commit almost any crime given that justice will not seek them out. Their escape, which involves Penny’s self-absorbed boyfriend (Adam Brody, very nicely done), is another instance where Scafaria gets the tone right, an edgy danger colliding with dark slapstick. Unfortunately, she loses sight of this for the remainder of the film. Indeed when the plotline takes Dodge back to Manhattan later in the movie, everything is just fine. His apartment, her apartment, the streets surrounding the building are not in ruins as you would expect. Instead everything looks like Dodge has just returned from a week’s holiday. Situation normal.
Even tiny things leave you questioning how much thought went into this movie. For whatever reason, Scafaria decided a shot of a spider climbing up Carell’s face as he sleeps at night followed by a shot the next day of spider bites on his face would be funny. It isn’t particularly funny but in the very next shot a short while later, the bites are completely gone.
The two protagonists head out of town on a vague mission to link Dodge up with his childhood sweetheart, thanks to a wrongly delivered letter Penny supposedly forgot to give to her neighbor — I told you the plot feels manufactured — and afterwards to get Penny to a man who owns a small plane so he can fly her back to England to see her family one last time. (All airlines have shut down with the end so near.)
This road trip involves meeting up with characters meant to provoke comedy but none really does: a truck driver (William Petersen) who has hired an assassin to relieve him of having to face the end of humanity, the wait staff and customers at the restaurant Friendsy’s, who are all very friendsy, and encounters or non-encounters with Dodge’s ex-girlfriend, Penny’s ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke) and the “man with a plane” (Martin Sheen) are all rather anti-climatic.
In a bid to make her flat characters more sympathetic, Scafaria gives each something to turn them into a mensch or at least compellingly oddball figures. Someone abandons a small dog that Dodge takes in. Penny hits the road clutching her treasured collection of vinyl LPs, which does at least trigger a fine soundtrack of golden oldies. Despite these efforts, you’re not going to care much for either lead since the performers look like they’re on autopilot.
It’s getting increasingly difficult to detect any real differences in Carell’s approach to his roles; they all act and sound alike. He hit a high-water mark with “Dan in Real Life” but hasn’t pushed himself much since. No need, I guess, since audiences love him to be Steve Carell. But this film really does ask for a somewhat less diffident character than he usually plays. Dodge is facing the end of the world, after all.
Knightly is all tightly wound and cute as can be but the performance feels tired. The fault may lie more with the writing than the actress but the end result is a two-dimensional character that exists merely for the hero to fall in love with.
Admittedly, there aren’t too many good comedies out at the moment — although “Men in Black 3” is really a comedy and a very good one — so you could do worse than seeking out this sometimes friendly film. You may, of course, regret the money spent but then it won’t be the end of the world.
Opens: June 19 (Focus Features)
Production companies: A Focus Features, Mandate Pictures & Indian Paintbrush presentation of an Anonymous Content production
Cast: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Connie Britton, Martin Sheen, Adam Brody, Rod Corddry, Gillian Jacobs, Derek Luke, Melanie Lynskey, T.J. Miller, Mark Moses, William Petersen
Director/screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria
Producers: Steve Golin, Joy Gorman Wettels, Steven Rales, Mark Roybal
Executive producers: Nathan Kahane, Nicole Brown
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Chris Spellman
Music: Rob Simonsen, Jonathan Sadoff
Costume designer: Kristen M. Burke
Editor: Zene Baker
R rating, 100 minutes