The drama and romance of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, starts imploding long before the massive asteroid hurtling toward Earth is due to deliver annihilation.
At least it’s an ambitious misfire from the filmmaker, screenwriter Lorene Scafaria making a rocky directing debut. The movie ponders what people would do with their final days if the end were a fait accompli. Will anarchy reign or will humanity win out? Will Dodge (Carell) and Penny (Knightley), relative strangers living in the same apartment building, find each other, and love, before the planet and the asteroid collide? Or will they die alone? Lots of potential for a really tragic love story — from here to eternity, literally.
But by the time the answers come around, so much has gone wrong — with the film as well as the world — it’s hard to care. Scafaria, who made such a splash with her cheeky screenplay adaptation of “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” in 2008, is simply over her head here.
The troubles begin with the casting choices. What must have seemed like a perfect fit in Carell — those doleful eyes and a slight smile — is not even close. This already restrained actor is completely shut down as Dodge, the resigned-to-his-fate man in the spotlight. For the versatile Knightley, usually so at home in whatever she’s handed — from “Pride & Prejudice” to “Pirates of the Caribbean” — the fit has perhaps never been worse. As Penny, a funky artist type who collects vinyl records and dresses in thrift-store chic, she is either nodding off (there’s some sort of loose explanation of the medical condition early on) or flailing around, and neither suits her.
As the film opens, Dodge is still suiting up for work every day, selling insurance policies despite the airwaves being filled with the countdown to doomsday (with Mark Moses excellent as a reassuring anchorman). When Dodge’s wife leaves him, he barely notices. He is so stoic, it’s a wonder he has a pulse. An encounter with Penny — they “bump” into each other at the mailbox, one of many “collisions” in the film — probably makes his heart rate spike a little, but it’s hard to tell. They are certainly opposites. But these opposites attracting? It’s a stretch.
Before there is even a flicker of romance, there is a very long road trip. It really serves as a walk down memory lane and a final chance for Penny and Dodge to mend fences, right wrongs, settle scores. She’s missing her family in England and he has a plan to get her there. Though the clock is ticking and these are theoretically desperate times, they are never, ever, in a hurry. The film’s pacing is soooo slooooow that the coma-like sleeps that Penny falls into are easy to understand, even easier to envy.
The look of the film swings wildly between shots of a world gone out of control — riots, looting, suicides, doomsday parties, pity sex — to the surreally uneventful, a lawn being mowed. It’s as if director of photography Tim Orr (“Pineapple Express”) has been given two movies to shoot. Which might have worked, if the dissonance had a point.
Instead, each time the film seems primed to make a statement about “What It All Means,” it devolves into contrivances that are too predictable. Consider their stop at the home of Dodge’s high school sweetheart. The house is deserted, but the electricity works and the pantry is stocked. So while Dodge looks around and contemplates “what might have been,” Penny can whip up a gourmet meal. Once the meal is served, only then do things go dark. But not to worry, candles and matches are, too conveniently, right there.
The most serious problem, though, is in the relationships, especially the key one between Penny and Dodge. Moments that should be saturated with the churn of denial, anger, love, passion, tension, fear, acceptance, or at least one of the above, feel strangely void of emotion. If this is what the end of the world looks like, don’t bother to stay awake.