It's just about over right from the start. A giant asteroid is fast approaching and, since this isn't Armageddon or some other block-blustery conceit, we can't rely on a superhero to save us from certain extinction.
Instead, humankind has raised the white flag, leaving news anchors to adjust their plastic smiles and count down “the end of days” – 21, to be precise. Yet not to worry. In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the times may be hard but the apocalypse is soft. Welcome to the anti-Melancholia.
And welcome back to Lorene Scafaria. When we last met Lorene, she had written the quick-witted script for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.
Now she's directing, too, but even though the infinite has turned precariously finite here, her tone hasn't changed – once again, laughs head the agenda. Early on, the comedy is black and abundant and, at best, wickedly funny. With cosmic nature throwing up a global disaster, human nature reacts as it always has – variously.
Some folks go wild, others get weak; survivalists resist, fatalists relent. As for earnest Dodge (Steve Carell), he continues to clock in at the insurance office where his manager, that most optimistic of species, gives the encroaching darkness a happy spin: “Feel free to wear casual attire pretty much every day of the week.”
That's the delight of these early scenes – the mining of imminent tragedy for nuggets of comic absurdity. Outside, it's raining suicides – splat, a jumper lands on a car windshield – but the radio traffic reports drone on about the same old gridlock. Inside, after learning that his wife abruptly flew the coop, Dodge heads off to a house party where the revels are in full swing. Sex is rampant, hitherto diligent parents are offering their 10-year-olds shots of tequila, and, in lieu of the chardonnay, “Sue and Dave brought heroin.” Conversely, dullards to the bitter end, the less imaginative cut loose less imaginatively: “I'm finally going to take that pottery class.”
Unfortunately, the keenest fun ends when the plot begins. Penny the blithe spirit (Keira Knightley) pops up in Dodge's dour ambit, and the odd couple hit the open highway, whereupon a disaster movie morphs into a road movie, and a black comedy into a romance comedy. Naturally, episodic adventures ensue, but the payoffs prove more intermittent and less rewarding than the premise. A visit to a friendly bar called Friendsy's merely echoes the previous party scene, but without the same kick. An encounter with a band of survivalists gives Penny a chance to place a satellite call to her parents in distant England, and the picture awkwardly pauses for a poignant-moment tableau. And an 11th-hour reconciliation scene with Dodge's father (Martin Sheen) is just forced schmaltz – some things are better never than late.
Still, not all the amusement is gone. Cast against type, Knightley is a likeable ditz; cast to type, Carell is an equally likeable loser, and if the two fail to generate any real chemistry, they at least sustain our rooting interest. En route, he takes along a rescued dog to up the cute quotient, while she totes a stack of her precious vinyl, a playlist of actual records in search of an actual record player. When it's found, with the seconds ticking down, bet that The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore) is No.1 with a bullet.
Such is the frustration here, a movie that veers from trenchant to predictable, from satire to sentimentality. Scafaria seems to get disoriented by her own scenario, boxing herself into an apocalypse whose initial absurdities feel so wonderfully right, but where to go from there? When the lights are out and the party's over, the End still demands an ending – maybe a bang, or perhaps a whimper, but surely not warm-and-fuzzy. Nope, not even a superhero would stoop to that.