By Caryn James | James on Screens June 21, 2012 at 9:33AM
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is something rare: a sunny, charming apocalypse film. Even the off-beat pairing of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley – what?! – works better than you’d imagine, evidence that Carell really can do anything, even play a romantic lead. Not the dashing sweep-you-off-your feet kind, but the best friend who makes you open your eyes one day and see how great he is. (Watch Carell here as he promotes the movie in a totally non-promotional way on The Daily Show, pretending to have written many serous books.)
Everything about the film sounds contrived, starting with its end-of-the-world meets road-trip premise. Dweeby insurance agent Dodge (Carell) and his slightly flaky neighbor Penny (Knightley) meet under the worst possible circumstances: a meteor is zooming toward Earth, with no hope of our survival left. Dodge’s wife flees at the news, probably to meet the lover Dodge never suspected she had. Penny’s relationship with her boyfriend is shaky. Soon they’re on the road heading toward Dodge’s first true love, trying to outrun the apocalypse.
It’s a miracle any of this works, but Carell makes Dodge totally winning – he’s been meek all his life but he’s not stupid. He’s the kind of character Carell specializes in, from The Office to Crazy Stupid Love: someone whose warm heart makes him endearing no matter how ridiculous he seems at first. Knightley smartly downplays her character’s ditziness, even though she has one of the worst attempts at a hip young haircut ever.
And while their road trip starts out comically, it gradually becomes more poignant. It is the end of the world, after all, and when Penny decides she wants to see her family in Britain, Dodge engineers one of the film’s most surprising and tender episodes.
The film is the first directed by Lorene Scafaria, who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. That film was disappointing given its promise (Michael Cera at the center of an all-night prowl through New York searching for a band’s unannounced gig). Here she comes through with a confident film that carries its clunky premise lightly.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has much less in common with Take Shelter or Beasts of the Southern Wild – the two greatest recent apocalypse films – than it does with Safety Not Guaranteed, another offbeat charmer that avoids the danger of too much whimsy. Scafaria’s ending is a jolt that doesn’t suit the tone of everything that’s come before, but her film is still an unlikely, lovely romance.
Here’s a trailer that captures the film’s wit but not its emotion.