The end of the world can’t come fast enough in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” a disastrously dull take on the disaster-movie formula that chooses to spend the last three weeks of life on earth with two of its least interesting inhabitants. Dodge (Steve Carell) wears fuddy-duddy sweaters and sells insurance; Penny (Keira Knightley) likes old records and pot. The story of what happens to this pair in the face of certain extinction is only modestly more compelling than what happens to their houseplants. By releasing it amid blockbusters, Focus merely amplifies the understated pic’s shortcomings.
If the films of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay have taught us anything, it’s that Armageddon is only as interesting as the lives it threatens. Subtract spectacle from the equation and character becomes even more essential. By the time writer-director Lorene Scafaria got around to casting him, Carell had played endearingly boring one too many times, leaving a vacuum where Dodge’s personality should be. Penny feels equally underwritten, which leaves the awkward sight of Knightley, evidently still stuck in “A Dangerous Method” mode, straining to appear girl-next-door cute while her facial expressions scream “mental patient.”
One might expect a livelier pair from Scafaria, who previously adapted “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and counts herself among Hollywood’s recent wave of dirty-girl scribes, including Diablo Cody and Dana Fox, known for writing pull-no-punches relationship pics from a fresh female perspective. Certainly, “Seeking a Friend” distinguishes itself from most male-directed end-of-the-world outings, having more in common with Don McKellar’s talk-ourselves-into-oblivion indie “Last Night” than the typical testosterone-driven doomsday epic.
Eschewing the showy visual-effects treatment, the film only hints at the approaching asteroid, occasionally cutting to a solemn old-school anchorman (“Mad Men’s” Mark Moses) to remind auds that mankind’s fate is not in dispute. The end is definitely nigh; the question is what people will do with their remaining time. Some take to the streets and riot. Others hunker down in fall-out shelters. Dodge’s closest friends see the end as an excuse to cut loose, trying heroin and consequence-free sex. For the Eeyore-like Dodge, however, the prospect of a looming deadline to get his life in order sends him into retreat.
He’s the sort of guy who has never known what he wanted, which is part of the problem; it’s hard to root for someone who doesn’t even root for himself. Even Dodge’s wife (played by Carell’s real-life spouse, Nancy) can’t bear to spend the end with him, clearing the way for a meet-cute with Penny, the pretty neighbor Dodge discovers crying on his fire escape.
“I can’t spend the last month getting to know someone,” Dodge sighs wearily, and it’s easy to sympathize. Going to the movies is a lot like serial first-dating, constantly getting to know new characters in the hope of finding some worthy of a repeat viewing, maybe even a sequel. And then there are cases like “Seeking a Friend,” where the chemistry isn’t right and you just want it to be over.
That first night, Penny falls into a coma-like slumber on Dodge’s couch, and the expression on his face makes it clear he just wants to be rid of her. Scafaria’s job over the next two weeks/90 minutes is to bring Dodge (and audiences) around to craving her presence. The film complicates this by introducing a romantic rival in the form of Dodge’s high-school g.f., Olivia. Enlisting Penny, Dodge sets out on a road trip to reunite with Olivia, whose offscreen presence symbolizes more than either of the onscreen leads can compete with.
Even with this new mission on the books, things move a little too slowly as the pic attempts to give the pair the time they need to fall in love, with Dodge making small talk or Penny waxing philosophical about her record collection. Whereas some first-time helmers overreach by trying too many fancy techniques, Scafaria errs in the opposite direction, uncertain how to breathe life into a story that announces its expiration date at the outset.
Whether a factor of limited budget or limited vision, Dodge and Penny’s world is curiously bereft of extras, which gives the film an unintended post-apocalyptic feel. Where are all the people? Then again, every time a side character turns up (opportunities for scene-stealing cameos by comics such as Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, T.J. Miller and Amy Schumer), it suggests the many friends who might have made the end more bearable.