Lorene Scafaria has an admirable goal for her directorial debut. She wants to make a character driven movie about the end of the world. One that exploits the sensational subject not for visual spectacle and visceral thrills, but for philosophical questions and emotional authenticity.
It’s not a unique goal -- the 1998 Canadian movie “Last Night” pulled it off perfectly well, and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” married apocalyptic visual spectacle with an attempt at resonant human characters (or at least as human as any characters in a Lars von Trier movie could be) -- but it’s a welcome departure from the usual summer event movie approach.
Unfortunately, the good news about “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” ends right there. Because the intriguing idea is so poorly executed, so depressingly loaded with indie romantic comedy clichés, so hopelessly miscast, that all the potential just withers on the vine. All of a sudden the melodramatic disaster movie formula of “2012” doesn’t look so bad. At least that movie offered some excitement and surprises.
Of all the characters we could follow in the days leading up to the end of the world, Scafaria chooses sad-sack insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell), whose white-bread midlife crisis coincides with the apocalypse. As an asteroid heads for an unavoidable collision with Earth, Dodge’s wife (Carell’s real life wife Nancy Carell in a solid wordless cameo) runs out on him, he realizes how pointless his job is, decides to attempt a reconciliation with his high school sweetheart, acquires a stray dog and strikes up a quirky indie-cute romance with manic pixie dream girl Penny (Keira Knightley) who waxes poetic about the power of vinyl records and following your heart.
What starts as a quirky apocalypse comedy quickly reveals itself as a boring hybrid of “Lost in Translation” and “Garden State,” burdened with two stars who couldn’t have less chemistry together. I like both Carell and Knightley and wish them many movies better than this one in the future, but as unexpected soul mates with the bad luck to meet each other at the exact worst (or best?) time, they never click. Their age differences, acting styles and physical presences are so mismatched, it would take exceptional screenwriting to overcome the disconnect. “Seeking a Friend” never comes close to exceptional.
There are a couple of interesting characters on the sidelines: Connie Britton is allowed a few nice moments as a married woman wrestling with her own crisis of the heart, and Derek Luke is a welcome choice as a man from Penny’s past with a plan for weathering the asteroid. (A romance between Britton and Luke would’ve been exponentially more interesting than what we get.) Otherwise there’s just a parade of cameos from recognizable (or vaguely recognizable) faces including Adam Brody, Martin Sheen, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, Gillian Jacobs, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Moses, Rob Huebel and Jim O’Heir. None of them are given enough to distract from the film’s core problems.
The film doesn't spend much time or energy imagining what might be happening in the weeks leading up to the end of the world. We get glimpses of certain ideas -- some people keep working, others don't; a chain restaurant becomes a neverending bacchanal of pot and party music; pilgrims flock to get baptized; riots randomly break out in the streets -- but nothing is ever focused or considered enough to really connect. It's all background to Dodge and Penny.
Scafaria -- who also adapted the script for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” a better hipster rom-com -- tries to fill in the film’s romantic credibility gaps with music and makes lovely third act use of The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” and two songs by The Walker Brothers. But by then the movie has already curdled. We’re just waiting for the world to end so the movie will too.
There's another indie sci-fi romantic comedy out right now called "Safety Not Guaranteed." I'd encourage you to seek that film out instead. It's clever, romantic, funny, compassionate and original in many ways that this film is not.
“Seeking a Friend” is so clueless that its predictable “Seize the day! Follow your bliss!” messages inadvertently make a case for its own irrelevance. If you only have a few weeks left before the world ends, would you want to waste a minute of it watching this movie? No way. So, why bother?
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" opens in theaters June 22