In the first scene of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a space shuttle mission to keep a giant asteroid from plowing into our planet — our last hope — has failed. In 21 days, Earth is a goner. Dodge (Steve Carell) is still processing the news when his wife (played by Nancy Carell, in a cameo) literally runs out on him: She bolts from their car and disappears into the darkness. When Armageddon is bearing down, why waste another second doing things you don’t want to do?
And why not try things you’ve never done? Dodge’s friends, a married couple (Connie Britton and Rob Corddry) with children, throw a dinner party at their home where the kids are downing martinis and playing with fireworks while the grown-ups experiment with heroin and spouse-swapping. But Dodge is too shell-shocked to play along. He continues to show up to his drab job at an insurance agency, where his boss announces “Casual Fridays from now on!” and clients still call to inquire about an end-of-the-world policy. A friend (Patton Oswalt) tries to get Dodge to see the upside of the situation. Women don’t care about getting pregnant or STDs anymore. “Single guys like us, we gotta grab this thing! The apocalypse has leveled the playing field!”
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which marks the debut of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, fares best as a farcical spin on Melancholia. In that movie, the manic-depressive Kirsten Dunst went around admonishing everyone “I told you life had no meaning!” But in this comedy, the end of days is a force of liberation. Carell plays the movie completely straight, letting everyone else bounce off his sad-sack persona. Nothing cheers him up, not even the staff at a T.G.I.F.-like restaurant, who have all dropped ecstasy and are ridiculous high and friendly and dancing around in conga lines.
Then Keira Knightley enters the movie as Penny, a young woman who loves vinyl records and realizes she’s wasted her life on all the wrong people (including her whiny boyfriend, amusingly played by Adam Brody). Dodge and Penny hit the road to escape the growing riots and mayhem of the big city. Many misadventures ensue. Love blooms, and this previously dark comedy goes sappy on you.
The two halves of the film are so different, you wonder how they could have been written by the same person. Scafaria obviously has a wicked wit and a sharp sense of humor: Why would she sabotage her own picture this way? You don’t buy Carell and Knightley together for a second — even if the world were about to end, these two would not hook up — but the movie still forces them on us. The story marches aggressively into formula and tear-jerking schmaltz, and even things that once seemed graceful and right, such as the scruffy little dog that Carell is forced to adopt, become cloying. As Seeking a Friend for the End of the World crawls toward its sentimental finale, you’re rooting for that asteroid to get here, quick.
Cast: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, William Petersen, Patton Oswalt.
Writer-director: Lorene Scafaria.
Producers: Steve Golin, Joy Gorman, Steven M. Rales.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief violence, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday June 22 at area theaters.