The end is near, if a bit contrived
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 22, 2012
“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a strange little movie. Unsure whether it wants to be a quirky, sad-eyed indie pixie or a brassy, raunchy broad, it veers uneasily between the two, never quite settling into a comfortable or recognizable groove.
Written by Lorene Scafaria, who makes her directorial debut, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” possesses a conceit just as high-concept as her 2008 rom-com, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”
In this case, an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, due to arrive in just a couple of weeks. When Dodge (Steve Carell) hears the news on his car radio, his wife takes off. After a few nights consoling himself with codeine-laced cough syrup and memories, he meets a goofy neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley), with whom he spends his final days on a road trip designed to make good on their own personal bucket lists.
Scafaria gets things off to a cynical, raucous start, homing in on jokes about an “end-of-the-world awareness concert” and flyers advertising assassins (“Tired of waiting for the end of the world?”). A friend of Dodge’s played by Rob Corddry throws a party where he serves alcohol to his kids, welcomes a guest bearing heroin and indulges in unsafe fireworks lighting.
It’s all very nihilistic and hard-edged, a tone that doesn’t quite jibe with Carell’s sincere, sad-eyed despond. When he joins forces with Penny -- a daffy hipster chick with a love of vinyl and Converse All-Stars -- the fit isn’t much neater, although the two share some genuinely sweet moments.
Tonally, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” faces the same challenge as “Zombieland,” which fared much better in trying to balance the volatile elements of apocalyptic chaos, wacky comedy and budding romance. Unlike that film, this one never creates a believable world -- a task made all the more important when that world is on the verge of annihilation. (Dodge and Penny’s story supposedly takes place in New Jersey, but I swear I spied a passing palm tree on their travels.)
By the time the all-too-convenient plot twist shows up in the third act, the air of contrivance is positively stifling, but Carell and Knightley still manage to wring pathos and warmth from the artificial setup, and the film’s conclusion arrives with a thudding, maudlin wallop.
Even that moment follows a bizarre, darkly funny joke during which a newscaster reminds his viewers to “spring forward.” Are we supposed to laugh or cry? Scafaria’s answer, presumably, is yes -- but it takes a more sure-handed director to make that clear.
Contains profanity including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.