By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Talk about a ticking clock: when this romance begins, the near-future world is about to end.
When a laser that’s been sent to space to protect Earth from a 70-mile-wide asteroid that’s rushing toward it fails to do so, people start preparing for the impending apocalypse, the end of humankind.
Thus begins the offbeat final-days comedy-drama, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in which people are told that they have three weeks to live.
Steve Carell plays Dodge Petersen, a soft-spoken insurance salesman whose wife, when she hears the devastating news, bolts from their car and their marriage.
When Dodge’s friends begin throwing caution to the wind and start acting reckless because, well, why bother following any rules at this point, Dodge keeps playing by the rules of civility.
He even takes in a stray dog.
Keira Knightley is Penny Lockhart, a British upstairs neighbor of Dodge’s whom he has never even spoken to, a free spirit and incurable romantic who’s involved with a self-absorbed musician who mistreats her.
As Dodge and Penny get to know each other, Penny delivers a letter to him that was incorrectly delivered to her apartment and that she never bothered to give him.
He’s aghast when he reads it to discover that it was from the love of his life, the only woman he ever really loved, the one who got away, and that now it’s probably too late to do anything about it. And it’s Penny’s fault.
So, with neighbors looting at will, Dodge and Penny decide to follow through on Penny’s suggestion that he try to find his original sweetheart while she attempts to reconnect with her family. That’s why they get out of Dodge and hit the road somewhere in Southern California, heading east in search of their lost loved ones.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World juggles genre, starting out as an edgy, satirical black comedy, then becoming a quirky road flick, and eventually ending up a melancholy romantic drama. Not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that.
Debuting director Lorene Scafaria (who wrote Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist), working from her own script, sets up her premise efficiently and economically, without a lost of fuss, and in the process shows us a distinctive directorial hand in the early moments.
But then she switches hands, and tones, and genre. When the intensity dips noticeably, we tell ourselves that it’s not the end of the world. And then we realize: oh, wait, well, yes it is.
An able supporting cast -– including William Petersen, Melanie Lynskey, Adam Brody, Patton Oswalt, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, and Derek Luke –- helps make the heavyhearted trip sufficiently pleasant. But it’s the leads who remain in the driver’s seat.
The chemistry between Carell and a deglamorized Knightley, while not ample, is sufficient for the film’s purposes. They may not quite make us feel the inevitability of where things go, but they certainly connect.
Still, it’s Carell on his own who really impresses, enormously sympathetic in a beautifully modulated, low-key performance (more dramatic than comedic, when you come right down to it) in which he uses his deadpan style to convey the palpable pain that he’s in.
Like the record that Penny plays at one point, the film gets stuck here and there, but not enough to make you wish you weren’t there.
So we’ll count down to 2½ stars out of 4 for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a bittersweet but not gloomy romantic dramedy that will at the very least stop you from seeking an exit for the end of the movie.