A gently quirky apocalyptic comedy centering on two lonely souls in need of companionship, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an irresistibly sweet, yet perhaps slightly too downbeat attempt to shake up the familiar rom-com formula. Existing somewhere between Don McKellar's affecting 1998 dramedy Last Night and Steve De Jarnatt's more serious-minded Miracle Mile from 1988, it falters while falling prey to the "manic-pixie dream girl" trend, but still manages to keep us invested in the characters with smart pacing, clever gallows humor, and capable storytelling.
Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) are both having a very bad day. Shell-shocked after hearing that the last hope of destroying the massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth has failed, Dodge watches helplessly as his wife bounds out of their car and vanishes into the night. Later, as the now-reluctant loner ponders what to do with his remaining time on the doomed planet, sobbing waif Penny appears at his window lamenting her breakup with self-centered boyfriend Owen. When the sun rises the following morning, the two neighbors who had barely exchanged passing glances in the hallway have forged a tenuous yet very real connection. Tensions rise, however, when Dodge learns that Penny inadvertently received an inviting love letter from the ex he's always loved, and that she failed to give it to him before all of mankind was doomed to a catastrophic fate. When Dodge announces a plan to reconnect with his ex while he still has the time, guilt-ridden Penny vows to help him accomplish his goal at all costs. But the more time this mismatched pair spend on the road together, the more their journey takes on a new meaning -- one that neither could have ever seen coming, but which both sense was the way things were meant to be.
As a moviegoer, it will be nice when 2013 rolls around; every society since the very first has thought they were living in the end times, and thanks to that ominous Mayan calendar, pop culture in general has grown increasingly apocalyptic. From literature to television to film, we've seen the world decimated countless times over and by every means imaginable, to the point where it's practically become the defining cliché of the modern era. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World feels like a picture that was destined to be made at this particular juncture, although with the possible exception of McKellar's film, it may be the least cynical end-of-the-world drama ever produced.
Smartly, writer/director Lorene Scafaria wastes little time setting up the scenario so that the comedy can shine through in the early scenes, and with actors like Carell, Rob Corddry, and Patton Oswalt to keep the laughs flowing, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World manages to maintain a somewhat light tone even as bodies begin falling from the sky and society starts to crumble. Meanwhile, once Penny appears and it becomes something of a "road movie," Scafaria manages to maintain our interest by introducing characters whose motivations can't be easily surmised, and by presenting situations that, while occasionally absurd, still manage to propel the plot in a manner that doesn't feel overly trite or contrived. And though it's hard to deny that Dodge and Penny are fairly two-dimensional characters, Scafaria is dealing in absolutes here, and they still earn our sympathies as they desperately search for a meaningful end to their existence. The biggest challenge as a viewer is gaining a grasp on the film's unusual tone, a curious mix of darkly comic pathos and life-affirming optimism. It's a particularly hard line to walk, but Scafaria does a commendable job, eliciting memorable performances from her two leads and using a climactic confrontation to add some genuine drama into the mix. And while it may not all come together 100% of the time, the moments when it does manage to do so overshadow the film's weaker elements, leaving us with a genuine sense of joy even -- or perhaps especially -- once we've gone past the point of compromise and seen the best of humanity emerge under the bleakest of circumstances.