Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is how fantastically misrepresented it's been in marketing: it came in looking like a snarky black comedy about the end of the world, and it is not that, to a startling degree. Instead, it is a delicately romantic character drama about the end of the world, in which some comedy finds its way almost as it were by accident And while this thus leaves us without a really sharp black comedy about the apocalypse, something that would be very nice to have at some point, the movie that Seeking a Friend is, is almost as welcome as the film that it isn't. Or something like that.
The film opens on a radio broadcast, which informs us that a space mission has just exploded during its launch, and thereby failed to destroy the asteroid Matilda, three weeks away from its estimated impact with Earth (the asteroid's name is never mentioned again and has no importance to the plot; one of a great many wee tiny grace notes in the screenplay that make it seem far deeper and more intelligent than it has to be). This is a terrible moment for humanity, which thus has been given a 21-day death sentence; and it's a particularly terrible moment for Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell), whose wife uses that exact moment as the excuse to finally leave him after years of being stuck in an emotionally arid marriage.
Dodge, as is not entirely surprising, finds all of this to be very depressing, and as those around him deal with the coming end either by indulging in a marathon of consequence-free immorality, or plugging forward like nothing is happening, he sinks inside himself, bobbing up only because his downstairs neighbor, Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley), is in her own little way almost as depressed as he is: having finally decided to dump her loser boyfriend, she's full of sorrow for the life she never got around to living yet, just as Dodge is in mourning for the life he lived so poorly. And thus they go on a road trip to redeem themselves in the last possible moment: he to reconnect with the girl from his past that he's always regretted losing, she to find some way back home to England, and the family she hasn't spoken to nearly often enough.
Going into it more than that would spoil the fun, if fun is the right word; under the guidance of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, the pair encounters several different enclaves of pre-apocalyptic behavior: here a fellow committing suicide-by-hired-assassin, there a group of self-assured and woefully under-prepared survivalists, or a chain restaurant whose wait staff have descended into a opium den-like fantasia of drugs and sex (the satire of the forcible casual friendliness of such restaurants in this sequence was, for me, the funniest part of an intermittently funny movie). It's not really very hard to see where the characters' journey is taking them emotionally, of course, and when they get there it still feels a bit contrived, but it permits the film a real doozy of a final scene with some of the very best acting of Carell's entire career, so that's a good thing, anyway.
Structurally, Seeking a Friend feels like it ought to be a comedy, but even at the beginning, when the plot hasn't warmed up yet and it's in the closest it will ever come to irony, it's more peppered with jokes than actually made up of them. Arguably, that ends up being for the best: for the more the movie strives for comedy, the worse it is, generally speaking, partially owing to Scafaria's somewhat boorish sense of what funny looks like in this context (early cameos by Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt as two different facades of male privilege in the face of despair are especially ineffective as comedy, as social commentary, or as anything). Making this concept into an outright farce would have taken the most subtle and clever of comic directors, and I don't know that we have anybody working in America right now who'd be able to do it; Stanley Kubrick in his Dr. Strangelove mode is what it's looking for, and that is a powerful rare commodity. And that being the case, it's probably for the best that Scafaria instead goes for a mixture of tones and genres and always ends up returning to a an exceedingly light dramatic state that fits both actors' limitations rather perfectly: all due respect to Carell and Knightley, neither of them have what it takes to carry off a tragedy.
If the results seem rather insubstantial for a movie about the end of the world, well, it's a rather insubstantial movie. But not a bad one. Scafaria gives both of the leads enough depth that neither one of them feel like a concept or narrative placeholder (and this is a real danger her: Penny has all the makings of a perfunctory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Dodge is, well, named Dodge, which tells us far too much about the metaphorical usage he's put to in the course of the movie), and there's an awareness of how human beings exist in relationship to one another that's not even remotely present in her shallow screenplay for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. A little measure of generational angst, a few cathartic moments that are played a little too routinely but also without the bigness of a really tacky character drama of the Oscarbait school, and we have here a movie that's actually touching, without being thoroughly moving.
It helps, too, that Scafaria is in fact a fairly good director, as it turns out: teaming with crackerjack cinematographer Tim Orr undoubtedly helped, for there are a great many scenes that are breathtakingly well-lit without marching up and showing off, and the whole thing looks far, far better than just about any other low-budget drama-comedy of this sort. But a lot of what works is absolutely due to the directing, which always foregrounds the acting and characters but never comes across as lazy: there is a conversation in a jail cell that stands as the most fascinating variation on the traditional shot/reverse-shot set-up that I've seen in longer than I care to remember (marred, frustratingly, by wobbly continuity), and the whole aesthetic of the movie is that, expanded into a feature: basically standard, pre-fab filmmaking, but with just enough of a twist to give it some fresh, biting energy. Usually, this is to make the film a bit slower, and a bit more bittersweet; and these are good emotions for a kind of romantic comedy cross-bred with miserabilist European art cinema to have. It's all in service to a movie that desires to remain low-key and minor, and accordingly does so - nobody is every likely to look upon Seeking a Friend as a masterpiece or a classic work of cinema, but it's tremendously capable and effective in its limited way, the kind of compact little movie that's always refreshing about this time of summer.