Funnyman Steve Carell and the hifalutin Keira Knightley seems like a monumental mismatch. But in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” it's great sport to watch two actors from divergent genres and countries have at it.
On paper, the matchup of funnyman Steve Carell with the hifalutin Keira Knightley seems like a monumental mismatch. But that, my friends, is why they play the games – or, in the case of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” shoot the movies. And what great sport it is to watch two actors from divergent genres and countries have at it in a road-movie rom-com set against no less than the apocalypse. From the get-go, when we learn that a speeding asteroid has given Mother Nature less than three weeks to live, you know there will be no happily ever after for our twinkling stars. But darned if doom doesn’t look good on them, as they opt to fall in love anyway, finding peace and comfort in each other as the world around them rapidly dissolves into chaos.
While their abbreviated romance follows a predictable path along the highways and byways of New Jersey, the ultimate outcome remains intriguingly up in the sky. Will that 70-mile-wide asteroid really kick Earth in its axis or will it miraculously veer off its path at the last second? That element of doubt/faith is what keeps the movie from devolving into a soul-draining downer. It’s also nice having Carell and Knightley around to assuage all the negativity with their affecting affirmations that it’s never too late to find contentment, even if it only lasts a few days, or mere hours.
Still, the movie – like life – is not without its problems. For one thing, there’s too much absurdist humor awkwardly mixed in with the direness of the situation, creating jarring tonal shifts that repeatedly threaten to take you straight out of the movie. The scenario also too closely parallels writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s script for “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” in that it involves two strangers of conflicting types riding around in a vehicle pursuing the male character’s “true love.” In this case, that would be the high school sweetheart of Carell’s beaten-down optimist, Dodge. The question of whether or not our traveling companions will eventually hook up is never in doubt, but Carell and Knightley conspire to make it interesting thanks to their infectious chemistry and well-heeled talent.
Like Jack Lemmon and Bill Murray, Carell possesses a knack for these comedic-tinged dramatic parts, subtly layering on the pathos while slyly exploiting his character’s vulnerability, like he did so well on “The Office” and in his best film role to date, “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a rare skill that you wish Carell would tap more often instead of wasting time on junk like “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Get Smart,” comedies that celebrate stupidity. Those parts simply don’t fit Carell, who is clearly smart and keenly aware, just like Dodge. That’s why you embrace his character so tightly in “End of the World.” As Dodge reaches his nadir after he’s dumped by his wife (Carell’s real-life spouse, Nancy) and repeatedly exposed to the immoral free-for-all taking place in the wake of Earth’s imminent demise, you fully commiserate with his attempt to take his own life. But like everything else, Dodge fails at even that, further upping the empathy.
In fact, you become so invested in Dodge’s plight that you’re beyond thrilled when he hooks up with Knightley’s effervescent Penny, a flighty neighbor living one flight down. Both have lived in the same apartment house for years, but it takes a cataclysmic event to finally get them to notice one another. He’s 49 and uptight; she’s 28 and madly in love with the idea of being madly in love, just like her parents back home in Surrey. But the differences in age and demeanor aren’t as jolting as you’d expect, partly because they start off as friends, taking refuge in each other’s company as rioters literally drive them from their homes. As they flee, they strike a deal: Penny will help Dodge locate his high school sweetheart and he will provide a plane trip to England in time for her to reunite with her beloved family.
What ensues is a succession of adventures that feel more episodic than organic. Scafaria even tosses in a cute little abandoned mutt named Sorry to raise the film’s adorability quotient, as if Carell and Knightley weren’t enough. They become the film’s holy trinity, but you wish Scafaria had extended an equal amount of dynamism to the weirdos they meet along the way. Although played by the likes of Martin Sheen, Derek Luke and T.J Miller, none of them have the time or inclination to fully register. Same with Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, Patton Oswalt and Melanie Lynskey, who all make too-brief cameos early in the film, when Scafaria samples what life would be like if everyone knew they only had three weeks to live. Unprotected sex, drug use, adultery and children getting liquored up all become the norm.
These snippets are morally appalling, yet utterly fascinating. In fact, you wish Scafaria had included more of them throughout the picture, instead of focusing almost entirely on Dodge and Penny, who for long stretches seem to be the only people left on Earth. And to be honest, I didn’t really notice that until after the picture was over, which is testament to how fully Carell and Knightley get to you. And that investment pays off big time with an ending that impacts you harder than an asteroid ever could.
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (PG-13 for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.) Cast includes Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. 3 stars out of 4.