Seeking a Friend for the End of the World starts out taking a bright approach to a catastrophe that Michael Bay and other alpha movie males have frequently faced. In the near future, a huge asteroid hurtles (again) to earth, and the TV news countdown to doomsday begins. With 21 days to go, what would you do, and with whom?
Insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) stays calm amidst the chaos that ensues after his wife bolts at the thought of spending the end of days with him, and his co-workers desert the office. Though his cleaning lady also stays faithfully on the job, he continues to go to work every day, and he walks through his lawless East Coast city littered with desperate advertisements offering sex and the ad referenced in the title. As the days count down to 14, his normally staid friends Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton) throw an end of the world celebration that turns into a 1970s swingers’ party. His friends, including a briefly seen Patton Oswalt, inform him they all knew his unhappy wife was having an affair, but Dodge is too depressed to let loose and give into the drunken come-ons of Karen (Melanie Lynskey). He mourns the might-have-beens in his life, particularly regarding his high school sweetheart, but the hapless Dodge can’t even pull off suicide.
Meanwhile, his downstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) fights with her lout of a boyfriend, a very flaky rock musician (Adam Brody), who’s too busy partying in the streets (like it’s 1999). In her apartment, she mostly sleeps through the mayhem going on around the city (a recurring narcoleptic-like setup for her kookiness). She tries to do a good deed by handing Dodge all his mail that had been mistakenly delivered to her—including a love letter from that first girlfriend—which finally energizes Dodge into action.
The visual gags of increasing panic in the populace have amusing flashes of imagination, including a TV anchor falling apart on air—up until Dodge and Penny set off together to escape riots and to get her on a flight back to her family in England and for Dodge to find his lost first love. Radio stations would probably count down the 500 greatest songs of all time as an excuse to wallow in classic rock, but here it reinforces the film’s turn into a conventional road movie, with the usual brief appearances by a variety of quirky characters, including the satirically over-friendly staff of a chain restaurant, Friendzys, and William Petersen as a grizzled trucker with a secret. That the duo conveniently locates folks from their pasts—Derek Luke holed up with survivalists and a remorseful Martin Sheen—is just too much of a coincidence.
The urgency of the scenario doesn’t make Carell and Knightley a convincing romantic couple. Their coming together makes no sense, and they have zero chemistry. It seems like young Penney’s incongruous love of 1960s vinyl records is an excuse to find something in common for the couple despite their 20 year age difference, but it just leads to the predictable appearance of dusty old turntables for sentimental interludes. I would expect this fantasy relationship from a male, middle-aged writer but it’s disappointing coming from debut director Lorene Scafaria, the scripter of the charmingly off-kilter Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008). While the film’s website helpfully points out the many movies with a similar premise that inspired this story, they also bring to mind so many other recent apocalypses that have approached the familiar set-up with far more creativity and insight into human behavior, let alone entertainment value—Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, Brit Marling and Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, or Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.