The unlikely romantic pairing of Keira Knightley and Steve Carell never starts to feel any more likely in the glaringly inauthentic Seeking A Friend for the End of the World, which uses the end of days as a quirky-cute backdrop for one last-chance romance. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea-- Don McKellar did wonderful things with it in the tiny, lovely Canadian drama Last Night-- but first-time director Lorene Scafaria never nails down a tone for this rambling road trip romance, tossing together some dark humor, some rom-com contrivances and some last-minute sap for an uncomfortable, never quite satisfying combination.
The best part of the film comes early on, when our sad-sack hero Dodge (Carell) grudgingly attends a "last-chance" party held by his ferociously unhappy married friends (Connie Britton and Rob Corddry), not long after he's left in the dust by his own wife (Carell's wife Nancy, in a cameo). The part is packed with welcome faces like Patton Oswalt and Melanie Lynskey, and the revelers do all the bad stuff they would avoid if there weren't 21 days left to go on earth-- heroin is passed around like champagne, kids play with fireworks in the driveway, and Britton's character makes a pass at Dodge that he, infuriatingly, refuses. Dodge is a miserable wet blanket even when met with the fact of his own demise, and it's frustrating to leave the party with him, knowing that the vibrant and funny people there will be left behind in the movie's dogged pursuit of romance.
There's no limit to the cutesy, unrealistic things that happen to Dodge once he meets Keira Knightley's Penny, starting with her arrival as a sobbing mess on his fire escape and ending with their escape from a riot-riddled New York (badly mimicked by California) as they ditch her whiny boyfriend (Adam Brody, yet another person we sorely miss when he's gone). Dodge has decided to hunt down the old flame he let go years earlier, and Penny desperately wants to get back to England to see her family one last time; Dodge makes the incredibly shady promise of "knowing a guy with a plane" to help Penny out, so she agrees to travel with him to find his lost love. Their road trip brings them to people coping with the apocalypse in all kinds of ways, from a hired hitman to Penny's survivalist ex (Derek Luke) to a tripped-out T.G.I. Friday's (staffed by Gillian Jacobs and T.J. Miller) to a determined cop still writing speeding tickets (Parks & Recreation's Jim O'Heir).
Like the party at the beginning, each of these encounters suggests a richer, funnier movie to follow, rather than watching Dodge and Penny go through the motions of any other meet-cute romance. The side characters get most of the funniest moments, and in the case of Britton or the late-arriving Martin Sheen, some of the best pathos as well. Both Carell and Knightley are supremely likable screen presences, but they're all wrong for each other here, and Scafaria's script saddles them with a passionate romance that doesn't come close to emerging on-screen. There's wit to spare in Seeking a Friend, not to mention the irresistibly melancholy presence, but Scafaria never assembles all the elements into a meaningful whole, much less crafting a romance that's worth following through the end of time.
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