By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The end is near. Maybe not the way people wearing sandwich boards promised, but it's coming. An asteroid is 21 days away from striking Earth and ending civilization as we know it.
Some of the doomed are getting a head start on that, indulging in freer sex and substance abuse than they dared before. Rioters and survivalists alike are feeling smug. Others are going about business as usual — mowing lawns, exercising, going to work — and the mundane never seemed so weird. A few people are opting out on their own terms, or hiring hit men for suicides by proxy.
The world is going to hell without enough time left to weave the handbasket.
In the middle of chaos are two strangers Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Dodge (Steve Carell) is an insurance wonk whose dissatisfied wife decided Armageddon was a good time to bail. Penny (Keira Knightley) is a free spirit with a great vinyl LP collection and a lousy boyfriend. Dodge wants to reconnect with a high school sweetheart. Penny wants to rejoin the stable family she flitted away from. The countdown clock is ticking.
From these dire circumstances writer-director Lorene Scafaria crafts a movie surprisingly rich in humor and heart. Even depressed moments are marked by gallows wit, as these doomsday Candides continue their personal quests together. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has a lot of fun with humanity's worst side yet keeps an eye tenderly focused on the best aspects of us.
Scafaria displays remarkable vision and control of this material, as a first-time director with only one previous screenplay credit, the overly chatty Gen Y comedy Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. This movie isn't as self-conscious with its wit, the central characters' back stories are more skillfully revealed and side characters have purpose thanks to the what-if premise. You get to know people better when there isn't time for posing anymore.
Dodge has been fooled by posers for years, and Carell nimbly conveys his confusion as truths become clear. Dodge doesn't fall prey to the temptations of imminent oblivion — spelled out by Patton Oswalt in a magnificently profane cameo — and timid indignation is when Carell is funniest. Yet the role and the actor achieve something deeper, desperate to escape their comfort zones. Knightley is even more surprising, looser and more likeable than her performances in stuffy melodramas and bloated pirate fantasies. Less Posh Spice and more Zooey Deschanel.
Together this affably odd couple trek to whatever happens before annihilation. Whether or not they reach their goals isn't as important as how they fail or succeed. It's more amusing than you might expect, and ultimately more touching than an eroding society around them deserves. There's a sweet, clear message here: Finding our friends before the end of the world is how we should all go.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.