Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an unexpectedly thoughtful, and somewhat out-of-place film for the summer movie season. You expect end-of-the-world, apocalyptic films in June, but usually they come from the likes of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has the asteroid you’d associate with those blockbusters, but little else. Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut (she also wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is instead the cinematic equivalent of Steve Carell’s eyes: Sweet, soulful, and sleepy, a basset hound of a movie that that whimpers sorrowfully at the moon. It’s not a movie you enjoy as much as it’s a movie you want to cuddle up in a sleeping bag with and hug.
Steve Carell plays Dodge, a solemn insurance salesman whose wife leaves him in opening scene of the film after a radio announcer reveals that the Earth’s last-ditch effort to save itself has failed, leaving humanity three more weeks before an asteroid destroys all of mankind. What do you do when you know you have only three weeks left to live? While everyone else is having orgies, drinking themselves into a stupor, and trying heroin (including the kids), Dodge is aimless and detached. With 21 days left, he has no interest in starting all over or trying to get to know someone in an empty attempt to avoid dying alone. Instead, he longs for his high-school sweetheart, the “one that got away.”
Subsequently, he meets Penny (Keira Knightley), his upstairs neighbor, a serial monogamist who has just broken up with her boyfriend (Adam Brody) and decides to spend the rest of her days single. All she wants to do is get back to her family in England, but air travel has ceased, and she has no way of returning. Penny and Dodge strike up an unlikely friendship, and after a riot breaks out in their neighborhood, they flee the scene together with a half-hearted goal of finding Dodge’s long-lost girlfriend before the asteroid strikes.
From there, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World morphs into a wistful road-trip movie, one that’s less about destinations and dramatic turns than about conversations and shared experiences. Penny — vibrant, sweet, and adorably effervescent — and Dodge — kind, but reserved — fumble their way toward romantic epiphany, and the fact that the two are such an unlikely pair is kind of the point. At the end of the world, it’s less about sexual chemistry and attraction and more about simple connection.
Even still, it’s a tough sell pairing Steve Carell and Keira Knightley who feel more like a father-daughter pair, but fortunately, it’s not a dealbreaker for the film. In fact, it’s almost irrelevant. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a love story. It’s a meditation on life and on what it is we value. Do we cling to our routines even as we realize the pointlessness of it all, if only because it’s those routines that we value? Do we throw caution to the wind, let our Ids run wild, and soak up as much hedonistic experience as possible before we expire? Or do we seek out comfort, someone with whom we can connect and bond as the lights dim on the survival of mankind?
Those are the themes with which Scafaria plays. Many of her ideas are only half formed and fail to cohere, while others spin into oblivion, but the film is an interesting exercise in contemplation. For better or worse, the fact that it often meanders lethargically allows ample time for consideration. Ultimately, however, A Friend for the End of the World succeeds not as summer entertainment, but as a warm-hearted alternative. It’s a sleepy, rainy Saturday afternoon kind of film, sweet but not too heavy-handed, and more cozy than it is enjoyable. It’s not for everyone, but if your senses feel assaulted by the summer blockbuster mayhem, Seeking a Friend at the End of the World offers a modest way to escape.