I’ve written before that every director eventually makes his or her own end of the world movie. But Lorene Scafaria, who wrote Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, has debuted with hers. The flip side of Melancholia, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World casts Steve Carell as Dodge, a mild-mannered insurance salesman whose narrowly lived life contracts that much further when his wife ditches him, having learned that an asteroid will strike Earth in three weeks’ time. Rather than pull together in this time of global crisis, his friends and acquaintances retreat into their own obsessions and preoccupations, leaving him out in the cold. (They are played, in brief vignettes, by actors who, like Carell, are our TV friends and acquaintances, including William Petersen, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, and Melanie Lynskey.) Warming things a bit is a neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who has lived a little too broadly. As the social order disintegrates Dodge and Penny hit the road in her car, he to reconnect with his high school sweetheart, and she to return to her native England to spend the apocalypse with her family. What they don’t count on is making a “deep impact” (bah-dump!) on each other.
Relationship stories are a subgenre within end of the world movies, and Seeking a Friend bears certain similarities to the wry Miracle Mile (1988) and Last Night*(1998). It is, however, a lot more MOR than those cult objects, with a soundtrack to match. (Penny is a vinyl collector, and for easy chuckles the movie needle-drops suddenly ironic songs like “The Air That I Breathe,” “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” etc.) Bad things happen throughout, but the mild, pleasant friendship tone is the prevailing one. (I wonder if It’s a Disaster, a film in the exact same vein that played the Los Angeles Fim Festival earlier this week, is any different.) The movie is scaled to Carell’s romantic-ish persona, well-established in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Dan in Real Life, and Crazy, Stupid, Love., and Armageddon hardly ruffles it, even when he goes toe-to-toe with the apocalyptic guest star playing his long-estranged dad in the movie’s one confrontational scene. Knightley, meanwhile, clearly relishes throwing off her usual period duds to play the uncorseted Penny, though Scafaria hasn’t written anything to match her energy. (She does get points, however, for at least mentioning the age difference between Carell, 49, and Knightley, 27, not that it matters much in this context.)
I saw Seeking a Friend on Monday, started writing this review that night, then filed it away. When you can’t find the urgency to finish a critique about an end of the world movie, something’s wrong. Mostly courtesy of its self-centered supporting cast the movie has a few fleeting laughs; if you missed Duck on the fifth season of Mad Men, as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Mark Moses turns up repeatedly as a smarmy anchorman. The rest of it is too determined to be painless, a cheerful outing into oblivion that dissolves on impact. The world ends, not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a smile or two and treacly old songs.