||In cuisine, at least, one talks of sweet and sour. But in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” the order is reversed. The movie starts out edgy and dark but turns progressively softer, ending up as a sappy reaffirmation that love conquers all despite the fact that unlike in “Armageddon,” it turns out that asteroids can’t always be deflected from hitting earth at the last minute.
The whole end-of-the-world premise is mere back story anyway, and anybody looking for big special effects and massive destruction will be seriously disappointed. The film is basically an unlikely romance occasioned by the announcement, by a TV anchorman (Mark Moses) who periodically reappears with new details, that the final effort to destroy the asteroid headed for terra firma has failed, leaving just weeks before it strikes. The news sends the wife of dour insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) scuttling off to her lover, leaving the poor fellow to face the end alone.
At first Lorene Scarfaria’s script takes an amusingly sharp view of the guy’s situation. Lacking any alternative, he continues to go to work, fielding phone calls about disaster coverage while joining his few remaining colleagues in pointless conferences where they’re offered the company’s top, but now vacant, positions. At a party with acquaintances, he's faced by friends who espouse the view that hedonism is the only way to go (Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt have amusing cameos here) and by another (Connie Britton) who tries to link him up with a needy woman (Melanie Lanskey) for the final days. But Dodge will have none of it, insisting on moping around in what seems to be his usual pre-Armageddon fashion; he can’t even persuade his cleaning woman (Tonita Castro) that she needn't keep coming to dust. So far, so good.
But the tone quickly turns for the worse, from the comedic standpoint. Dodge inherits a cute abandoned mutt that will be a companion for the rest of the movie. And he acquires another—downstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), whom he rescues from a riot that threatens their building, as well as from her self-absorbed boyfriend Owen (Adam Brody). She’s one of those irritatingly quirky young women that we’re supposed to find charming but rarely do. Soon the duo—or trio if you count the dog—are off on a quest to reach Dodge’s high school sweetheart who, coincidentally, recently wrote him a nice letter that had been accidentally delayed in reaching him by Penny’s obtuseness.
The rest of the picture is a series of road-trip episodes, a couple momentarily intriguing because of their weirdness (an encounter with an oddball trucker played by William Petersen, a stop at a restaurant where T.J. Miller is a goofy, good-natured waiter) but most pretty drab. Derek Luke shows up as an old flame of Penny’s, a macho Marine who’s holed up with several pals in a bomb shelter where they plan to survive the coming catastrophe and emerge afterward to restart humanity. The couple spend a night in the deserted home of Dodge’s erstwhile girlfriend, bonding over a pasta dinner. And they eventually wind up at the isolated house of his long-absent, estranged father (Martin Sheen), who among other things has a private plane. As the journey progresses, the mood grows increasingly sentimental, winding up as sort of a cinematic group hug, though apart from one curious sequence in which the couple join a parade of people going down to a beach to be baptized by a guy who appears to be a wandering monk, religion goes virtually unmentioned and crowds are conspicuous by their absence.
“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” deserves some recognition for dealing with the end of days in a quieter, less gung-ho fashion than usual (though one suspects that the bare-bones, arid look of the film, shot by Tim Orr, is probably due more to the modest budget than artistic choice). But Scarfaria’s treatment is so deadpan and understated that it might actually make you long for some of the bombast of Hollywood’s apocalyptic blockbusters. Her approach certainly dovetails with that of Carell, who simply repeats his familiar sad sack routine. Knightley is more animated, but she can’t make Penny’s peculiarities (a longing for her LP records, for example) particularly endearing. Sheen sells the father-son reunion business as well as anyone could. But the best, least mannered performance comes from the dog.
It’s a pity that in the end the sugar so completely overwhelms the more bracing ingredients of the picture’s first half-hour. What might have been the “Zombieland” of asteroid flicks deteriorates into schmaltz by the close.