Welcome to the cutest apocalypse ever.
In the hands of filmmakers like John Hillcoat (The Road) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia), the end of the world can be such a downer. First-time writer-director Lorene Scafaria has a different vision: She sees the obliteration of the human race as the perfect backdrop for a romantic comedy.
And, for 10 or 15 minutes, she comes close to making that work. The opening scenes of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World are by far the richest and most inventive. We hear a radio announcer report that a space mission has failed in its effort to intercept an approaching asteroid and that said asteroid will collide with the Earth in 21 days. I thought, Hey, it’s Armageddon — the alternate ending. Deal me in!
What follows is a series of deliciously absurd reaction shots. Steve Carell stars as a New Jersey insurance salesman named Dodge. He responds to the news — at least initially — by clocking in at the office anyway. His wife responds by literally running off, never to be heard from again. Friends such as Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton) throw wild parties where the adults hook up without fear of future complications, and the children are cheered up with chilled martinis. “Sue and Dave brought heroin,” one guest announces.
“I’m finally going to take that pottery class,” offers another. Funny stuff.
Scafaria’s most compelling notion is that, even with the end nearer by the minute, much of humanity would probably go about its business as usual. Early scenes include eerie images of homeowners stoically mowing their lawns, fitness freaks still working out at the gym and TV news anchors reporting for duty despite the fact that nothing remains to be said. I couldn’t help thinking a poignant, low-key movie might have been built on such a premise.
Unfortunately, that’s not the movie Scafaria decided to make. Mere minutes in, the picture’s tone shifts with the introduction of Keira Knightley’s character. She plays ditzy hipster chick Penny who lives in the apartment below Carell’s. The two don’t know each other from Adam, but that doesn’t stop them from embarking on a road trip and slowly falling in last-minute love. Did I mention they adopt an abandoned dog and bring it along for the ride? Could the end-times possibly get any cuter?
Maybe not, but in Scafaria’s hands, they do manage to get cornier. Along the way, Dodge and Penny open up about their childhoods (Penny’s family lives in England; Dodge’s father walked out on the family when he was a kid). They find a working phone that makes possible a tearful long-distance farewell to Penny’s parents and then locate Dodge’s long-lost dad (Martin Sheen), with whom he patches things up in maximum heart-tugging fashion.
Cornier still is the stack of vintage vinyl LPs the filmmaker has Penny pack for the trip. The affectation is irksome enough, but it gets irksomer. Coincidentally, every song we hear makes a cutesy apocalypse pun: “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” “The Air That I Breathe,” “New Day,” “In the Time of My Ruin.” OK, we get it.
What we never do quite get is why these two are together, aside from the demands of a contrived script. Carell and Knightley couldn’t have less chemistry, and their characters couldn’t have less in common. The hookup is as improbable as it is arbitrary. It’s simply a cuteness-delivery device.
To make matters worse, Dodge and Penny are never for a second convincing as people running out the clock on a planet about to be pulverized. They’re too busy being quirky indie creations instead of human beings, too adrift in their own world to connect in any meaningful way with ours.