Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

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“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. A 70-mile-wide asteroid is headed for Earth. There’s no way to stop it. Our governments presumably tried all the stuff from “Armageddon” and it didn’t work. Scientists say the rock will hit us in 21 days, killing everyone on the planet when it does. All we can do till then is wait.

We’ve all wondered what we would do if we knew we were going to die soon. Plenty of movies have addressed that subject. But how do your plans change if it’s not just you but the entire world that’s going to die? What happens to society in the meantime? This is a far less common movie premise. (There have been a few, though, including a fine Canadian film from 1998 called “Last Night.”) We want the characters in our movies to have at least SOME chance of success, and pitting them against an unstoppable force that will definitely destroy the planet sounds like you’re dooming them to failure from the get-go.

Ah, but there are different ways of measuring success. “Seeking a Friend,” a bracingly original romantic-comedy-drama, reminds us that your life is a success if you make the most of whatever time you have. Maybe you can’t stop the utter annihilation of the world and everything in it. But don’t underestimate the importance of short-term goals!

The film begins three weeks before doomsday. Dodge (Steve Carell), an unambitious office drone with a name that’s a little too on-the-nose for his character, finds himself newly single when his wife figures now’s the time to split. Dodge is the sort of schlubby guy who always seemed beaten-down and resigned, even before the end of the world was announced. “You’d think a lifetime of waiting for the worst would have prepared me for this,” he says at one point.

A younger neighbor of his, Penny (Keira Knightley), is almost his opposite — carefree and optimistic, good at finding the bright side, fond of marijuana, flighty. She’s the kind of girl who thinks nothing of popping into Dodge’s apartment by way of the window and fire escape. She’s also dangerously close to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but Knightley’s simple charm keeps the character from teetering over into that realm.

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who penned the “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” screenplay and has written for TV’s ultra-absurd “Childrens Hospital,” finds plenty of humor in the details of civilization’s breakdown, imagining a wide range of reactions that all seem plausible. There are people who continue to go about their normal lives, finding comfort in the routine; some commit suicide now, to get it over with; others do what we tend to think we would do, i.e., go completely bonkers, host orgies, do drugs, give liquor to children, etc. Brief appearances by the likes of Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, T.J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs, Connie Britton, and Adam Brody are funny.

For society at large, there’s still some semblance of order at first. (“Feel free to wear casual Friday clothing any day of the week,” Dodge’s boss tells his employees.) But soon this collapses into rioting and mayhem, forcing Penny and Dodge to embark on a road trip toward their individual goals: she wants to get home to her parents, he wants to reconnect with his high school sweetheart.

There are a few missteps in what is overall a very solid film. Dodge and Penny wind up in jail for a night, a useless diversion that doesn’t make sense logically and doesn’t help the story. More crucially, as much as I believe the Dodge and Penny characters individually, I just don’t buy the relationship that forms between them over the course of the movie. We’re supposed to feel like they’ve found something real, but their connection seems forced and contrived. Still, there are some truly affecting moments in this unusual, melancholic comedy.

B (1 hr., 41 min.; R, some F-words, some sexual references.)

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