The apocalypse is upon us. Again.
“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is one of those tender Armageddon love stories that crop up every so often — 1988’s “Miracle Mile,” 1998’s “Last Night,” 2009’s French thriller “Happy End.” This time there’s an asteroid headed toward Earth, scheduled to smack down in a week, and in the global panic and resignation that ensue, two lost souls find each other. If that sounds like Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” on Prozac, it is.
Somewhat improbably, the leads are played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley — a pair of actors who go together like burgers and tea. But the two give it their all (which in Knightley’s case is occasionally too much), and before the script goes gooey on us in the back half the movie has a cracked, sardonic take on how society might confront The End.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria imagines our final days as a party on a grandly neurotic scale, with everyone trying to cram his or her bucket list into one short week. Heroin? Adultery? Pottery classes? Why not? The only person who hasn’t found the spirit is Dodge (Carell), a sad sack insurance salesman who’s very much an extension of the star’s role in the recent “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” As in that film, his wife dumps him in the film’s opening scene, bailing out of their car on a dark suburban road. “I think we missed the exit,” Dodge says.
These early sequences are tonally rickety but inspired, exploring with light comic surrealism the human impulse to grab at experience before the lights go out. Dodge’s best friends are a pair of middle-class marrieds (Rob Corddry and Connie Britton) who feed their children martinis and start spouse-swapping with grim purpose. Air traffic grounds to a halt, cellphones fail, bodies fall from buildings. A magazine cover names Jesus Christ and Oprah as the “Best of Humanity.”
Dodge is roused from his torpor by a wistful letter from a college girlfriend, and he sets out to find her. He’s joined on the road trip by Penny (Knightley), his young basket case of a neighbor. The actress digs in hard, but her character is a collection of screenwriter’s tics, from a super-hip vinyl collection (happy to see John Cale name-checked in a major motion picture, though) to her ugly haircut to her “hypersomnia.” That means Penny’s impossible to wake up once she falls asleep, a condition that seems to exist solely to justify a late-inning plot point.
Penny wants to get to London to see her parents one last time, Dodge knows a guy with a plane. There are interactions with a suicidal trucker (William Petersen), an easygoing survivalist (Derek Luke), and a small-town cop (Bob Stephenson) who won’t tolerate misdemeanors just because the apocalypse is at hand. The scene with the most potential is the couple’s visit to a roadside restaurant where the staff is blissed-out on end-times fever and maybe a little Ecstasy; you’ve never heard anyone say “I’ll be your server today” with such desperate enthusiasm.
That sequence doesn’t get where it’s going, though, and Scafaria seems unsure of where that even is. She wrote the script for the charming 2008 teens-in-Manhattan romance “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and she has a terrific ear for dialogue that’s cynical and hopeful at the same time. But she’s not there as a director yet, and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” struggles to find its voice.
Eventually the film runs out of things to do and places to send the couple, and, after one last surprise cameo by a Respected Older Actor, it settles into a rut of impassioned, rueful romance. If only we could believe it. Carell’s performance is enjoyable but safe, and while he and Knightley play well enough together, there’s no genuine chemistry — no zap to convince us these two deserve to be the last lovers on Earth. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” tries to have it both ways, but it may not be possible to send the planet out with both a bang and a whimper.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.