Downbeat "Seeking a Friend" alternately sweet and tender

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
100 min., rated R.
In seeking soul mates for an apocalyptic "melancomedy," Steve Carell and Keira Knightley sound like an unlikely, mismatched pair at first blush. They don't make a lot of sense as romantic companions, with there being a 22-year age difference, but hey, if it's the end of the world as we know it, why not give it a go to feel fine? But the boldest move behind "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is that writer-director Lorene Scafaria (the "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" screenwriter's debut behind the camera) has actually concocted a romantic-comedy with Armageddon as its backdrop. It's too downbeat and hopeless of a premise that mainstream audiences wouldn't ordinarily go for (and apparently hits a lot of the same beats as the 1998 Canadian end-of-times film "Last Night"), but "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is the offbeat and strangely charming flip side of Lars von Trier's powerful, artfully bleak "Melancholia." Nevertheless, audiences hoping for a happily-ever-after ending are going to be disappointed.

A 70-mile-wide asteroid named Matilda will collide with Earth in three weeks. All attempts to stop it have failed, so mankind only has 21 days to live. Insurance-company drone Dodge (Carell) and his wife Linda (played by Steve's real-life wife Nancy Carell) sit in their car, listening to the radio broadcast announcement, until Linda gets out of the car and leaves him. Dodge carries on his last weeks with a midlife-crisis, going to work and taking calls like nothing has changed. Then at an "End of the World"-type party hosted by his married friends (Connie Britton, Rob Corrdry), Dodge is set up with a tacky woman (Melanie Lynskey), but he sees no point. Instead, since his wife left him, he decides to find "the one that got away," his high school sweetheart, Olivia. That's when he finally meets his bohemian British neighbor, Penny (Knightley), who's going through her own crisis of missing her family across the pond and not being able to get a flight out. Dodge promises her a plane he knows of if Penny helps him find Olivia. When New York gets worse, riots breaking out downtown, Dodge and Penny hit the road with their goals in mind and make a deep connection along the way.

What would you do if you had three weeks to live? Does life hold any meaning if The End is near? "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" surely isn't a profound sociological study of humanity, but the film takes its premise seriously enough to ruminate such questions. Otherwise, we have a road-movie with a romance at its core and an episodic structure of comedic detours. A few sections are tonally detached from the rest of film, as it's these moments that mistakenly marketed the film as a comedy. Still, there are spiky, inspired (albeit brief) supporting turns, colored like a black comedy, from Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Amy Schumer, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Adam Brody, and William Petersen. Also, T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs hilariously show up as the touchy and cheerfully over-the-top staff of a chain restaurant called Friendsy's ("where everybody's your friend, and everybody is welcomeeven wolves!"). Later, Martin Sheen has a poignant role as a man with regrets.

Scafaria's screenplay finds plenty of droll humor in the workaday details of human civilization before reaching its untimely conclusion. At Dodge's workplace, his boss announces that it will be Casual Friday any day of the week and a higher-management position will be given to any of the few people that still come into work. Some commit suicide, just to get it over with. Others keep their lives for now but don't care about anything anymore that Dodge's friends go about shooting up heroin and giving liquor to children at a party they're hosting, and one of the wives even takes a pass at Dodge. Others have an orgy. And then there are those that keep mowing their lawn; even Dodge's cleaning lady still goes about her chores, telling him she'll see him the same time next week. In an act of dedication, a TV anchorman makes his last broadcast, bidding adieu to his viewers. One can almost see the world actually ending this way.

Carell is mainly in his comfort zone as the mild-mannered sad-sack everyman here, but he's such an appealing and understated dramatic actor that it's no wonder he plays the type so well. His Dodge has a sadness, and for good reason, but he's never a whiny mope. After a failed suicide attempt with windex in the park, Dodge wakes up to a "Sorry" note taped to his stomach and an abandoned dog now in his possession that he can't help but adopt. (Penny amusingly names the scruffy doggie "Sorry.") Penny is pretty much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, carrying her favorite vinyl records and showing up at Dodge's window like Holly Golightly, but Knightley makes her a spunky-flighty-optimistic extrovert. The actress has a particularly tender moment, where she uses a satellite phone in her survivalist ex-boyfriend's (Derek Luke) underground bunker to call and talk to each of her family members. Dodge and Penny aren't the last man and woman on Earth, but it's not hard to root for these two and hope they succeed. Sure, their connection seems more forced than organic and the actors exhibit little heat, but there's an opposites-attract appeal between them.

"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" has its jarring tonal shifts, but finds a way to make them all make sense since worldwide doom inevitably hovers. With doses of abrupt darkness, melancholy, sweetness, and zany farce, the film strikes enough affecting, emotionally truthful notes. Writer-director Scafaria's infinite playlists continue with sublime musical choices, from "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies to The Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)." Despite a final plot contrivance, Scafaria's daring to go through with the story's logical conclusion makes for a beautifully tender, intimate, and ultimately bittersweet moment between Dodge and Penny. It could be depressing and unsatisfying, but it's not. At that fulfilling moment, you'll start to see the glass half full when there's nothing left in the world.

Grade: B +