Romantic-movie premises don’t get less promising than the one in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” — which may be why the results, though downbeat and melancholy, are so pleasing.
When writer and first-time director Lorene Scafaria says “end of the world” in her title, she means it. The movie begins with a couple sitting in a car, listening to the news on the radio that the last attempt to prevent a global cataclysm — an asteroid named Matilda crashing into the planet — has failed, and everyone on Earth has three weeks to live. The man in the car, Dodge (Steve Carell), reacts calmly, while his wife (played by Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy Walls Carell) gets out of the car and runs away, never to be seen again.
Dodge, an emotionally remote insurance salesman in New Jersey, tries to resume a normal life — though that’s difficult when his co-workers have abandoned the office, some of them through upper-story windows. At a dinner party, his friend Warren (Rob Corddry) has given up trying to raise his kids, while Warren’s wife, Diane (Connie Britton), tries to set Dodge up with the flighty Karen (Melanie Lynskey).
Alone in his apartment, Dodge finds a neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), crying on the fire escape. She’s just been dumped by her boyfriend and fears she will never see her family in England again. Penny also reveals that she’s got some of Dodge’s accumulated mail — including a letter from his high-school sweetheart, Olivia, which ends with the words “you were the love of my life.” Dodge, in possibly the first impulsive act of his life, decides to find Olivia. And, as mobs are starting to riot in the streets, he takes Penny along for the ride with a promise of finding someone with a plane to get her home.
What follows is an episodic road movie, as Dodge and Penny encounter people handling the impending apocalypse in their own ways. They include a philosophical trucker (William Petersen), a theme restaurant where the waitstaff (including T.J. Miller and “Community’s” Gillian Jacobs) are all on Ecstasy, and an old boyfriend of Penny’s (played by Derek Luke) who is stocking up the basement with guns and provisions.
Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) strikes the perfect tone for this material, deftly balancing Penny’s pixieish optimism with Dodge’s rueful pragmatism as they face doomsday together. The movie elicits laughs based on the absurdity of the situation, as she keeps the characters — and the audience — from crying until such time as tears are appropriate.
The movie also benefits from the strange and unexpectedly effective chemistry of its leads. Knightley brings a bit of jolly mania to Penny, the flighty Brit who clings to her vinyl LPs like a life preserver. And Carell adds to his collection of emotionally detached good-hearted guys (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “Dan in Real Life” and even “Date Night”) with a performance that’s both comical and achingly poignant. If this is the end of the world, Carell and Knightley are the sort of friends you’d want to meet before it’s over.
‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’
The apocalypse is coming, and two strangers help find some closure in this wistful romantic comedy-drama.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.
Running time • 101 mins.