What do we know, from movies, about the apocalypse? Obviously not very much, or else they wouldn’t keep repeating it. This might suggest some existential panic, but a case could be made that variation on the theme is inherently hopeful. Human extinction might well be both inevitable and deserved, for instance, but why shouldn’t the prospect also be funny and romantic? “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” says maybe it should.
This is a movie about what happens when, with armageddon at hand and nothing better left to do, two lost souls take a road trip, toward each other. Dodge is a forlorn, tastefully sweatered, spousally abandoned American insurance salesman of middle age, played by Steve Carell. His young English neighbor Penny, played by Keira Knightley, is a quasi-exotic free spirit, and as much a readymade fetish object as the collected vinyl records she conspicuously cherishes. With only dire straits in common, Penny and Dodge may yet teach each other bittersweet things about how to live on severe deadline.
It begins promisingly, with the end duly announced. Life-obliterating asteroid en route, last-ditch aversion effort failed (there was a space shuttle called “Deliverance,” but it didn’t make it), little left to do but wait. And like the song says, the waiting is the hardest part. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is the sort of movie for which the awareness of a song having said something becomes more important than the effort to say something else. Maybe that’s typical for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, here making her directorial debut and again imposing music appreciation as both a characterization crutch and a lure for audiences amenable to sentimental movies putting on snappy indie airs.
Standing pigeon-toed in her Converse, chin-length hair gently crimped, eyes warm and wet with tears half the time, Knightley looks lovely and precious. She’s throwing her heart into this, but her bag-of-tricks acting needs more rigorous direction. Carell meanwhile carries his straitlaced-suburban chic with dapper aplomb, but his reliance on wistful-hangdog humor smacks of calculation. It’s intentionally funny when another character takes Dodge for a murderer, on account of the latter’s “vague way” and “detached look,” but the laugh feels more like a shiver; Carell’s deadpan appeals for empathy sometimes seem almost sociopathic.
Other actors come and go, in the way people do from our lives: peculiarly, sometimes vividly, often too quickly. It’s still the Dodge and Penny show. Like all romantic movie leads, they’re audience projection receptors, soaking up our pangs of regret about missed chances and our yearnings for some kind of fuck-it-all escape.
And it’s touching to see how much Scafaria cares for them, even as she fails to compensate for clunky plot advancement with mere scenery variation. As glib chuckles give way to genuine heartstring tugs, the movie drags. But maybe that’s a genre coup: Does it count as apocalypse aversion when the end is not quite nigh enough?