Instead of following a ragtag team of brutes hired for a suicide mission to destroy an Earth-bound meteor, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World plays out the apocalyptic "what if?" scenario from the everyman vantage point. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), the film pairs average joe Dodge (Steve Carell) with wallflower Penny (Keira Knightley) for a journey across the east coast, a hunt for Dodge's college sweetheart. Scafaria takes a character-first approach to her anti-blockbuster, examining the end of the world with a pitch black sense of humor. But the road trip loses steam as it chugs along, with the film's insistence to avoid Hollywood disaster tropes taking a toll on the entertainment value. Dodge and Penny are so normal, they aren't that interesting to watch. In turn, neither is Seeking a Friend. Worse for Dodge than the whole "destruction of humanity" thing is the fact that he's facing it alone; his wife leaves him, he has no real family, and he hates nearly all of his friends. ALTWhile everyone he knows is either hooking up or shooting up in hopes of going out on a high note, Dodge buckles under the weight of an existential crisis that feels all too familiar. To his rescue is next-door neighbor Penny, who insists the two hit the road together to go find Dodge's one-that-got-away. They don't have much of a choice, as New York City is quickly overrun by Malatov cocktail-hurling riots. When the catastrophe and societal chaos is seen through Dodge's eyes, and Carell's complex interpretation of the straight man, Scafaria hits all the marks.
Watching Dodge tell his cleaning lady to go home because "What's the point?" is heartbreaking, while his good friend's descent into frat boy madness for the same reasons nails mankind's vile tendencies. And through it all it's funny, thanks to Carell's impeccable timing. When Dodge is eventually paired up with Penny, the film meanders, the two never unearthing what it is about each other that keeps them sticking together. The duo run into a kindly truck driver (who's hired an assassin to off him when he's unaware), a TGIFriday's-esque restaurant full of zany, drugged up waiters, and even one of Penny's ex-boyfriends, whose locked down with automatic rifles and Ruffles chips in anticipation of the end. But Dodge and Penny's quest is mostly about the in-between moments, the quitter, grounded human reactions to the apocalypse. Even with great performers at the helm, Seeking a Friend doesn't organically shape those moments so much as contrive them. In one scene, Penny fondly recalls the wonders of listening to music on vinyl, Dodge listening carefully and learning. It's a soft and low key discussion, perfect juxtaposition against the big-scale problem at hand, but when a twenty-something is explaining records to a guy nearing 50, it comes off as twee instead of truthful. The problem infiltrates most of Seeking a Friend's character moments. Scafaria has an ear and eye for comedy, but Seeking a Friend boldly reaches for something more. Sadly, ambition doesn't translate to success, a messy tonal mix that fail to make it all that engaging or emotional. Carell and Knightley serve the material as best they can, but this is the end of the world, an even that requires a little weight, a little sensationalism and a little more than a casual road movie.