Enjoyable in small doses, Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has the basic problem of always lacking something. The film attempts to rework and reimagine the romantic comedy by stamping a pre-apocalyptic bent on it, but never knows what exactly its aims are. Is it a quirky comedy? A depressing tract on the eventuality of death? Well, it’s neither, and by never picking a tone, Seeking a Friend isn’t much of anything.
The film starts off strong enough, as we learn the news that in three weeks, an asteroid will strike Earth — essentially ending civilization. We meet Dodge (Steve Carell), whose wife (Carell’s real life wife Nancy Carell)—in the most literal sense of the phrase—runs out on him after hearing the news. In the meantime, Dodge’s job in life insurance has become pointless and all of his friends have transformed themselves into heroin-dabbling, promiscuous hedonists. Finding himself all alone at the end of the world, Dodge wants nothing to do with any of this, and instead sinks into apocalyptic ennui (for a comedy, we get a lot of Carrell staring longingly off into the distance). That is until he meets quirky neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who suffers from hypersomnia and an over-enthused love of her record collection. After a riot on their block nearly gets them killed, the two run off to live what’s left of their lives by misadventure—with Dodge looking for a long lost love, and Penny looking for a way to make it back to her family.
The world Dodge and Penny now inhabit is supposed to be strange and quirky. This is no surprise, seeing as how writer/director Lorene Scafaria penned the painfully phony attempt at teenage kook, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008). Don’t worry, this film is an improvement, as the characters’ idiosyncrasies are downplayed, even if we still get references to John Cale and wardrobe teams still figure out how to outfit Steve Carell in a hoodie. Where this goes wrong is that the odd world Scafaria’s creating is uneven and often stretches credulity. In the grand tradition of science fiction, Scafaria attempts to build a universe that exists all by its lonesome, but it’s world that doesn’t feel natural. Yeah, a lone chain restaurant slouching toward Judgement Day full of free love and free drugs is amusing, but Penny’s survivalist ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke), or the stranger (TV actor William Peterson) who’s hired a hitman to end his life, come off feeling forced. Too much of the story bows at the feet of the script.
In the film’s favor, it never quite devolves into rom-com basic, though it easily could have. The film has a strange way of oscillating between going further than you expect it to, and doing exactly what you predict. Seeking a Friend is driven by plot, with the trade-off being that nothing—especially the growth of our leads—feels natural. Their eventual emotional attachment feels phony and shoehorned into the film. The idea is obviously to have a pall of death, melancholy, and even existential dread hanging over everything, but with flimsy (and pretty dull) lead characters, Seeking a Friend never earns the emotional response it so desperately wants. Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.