With its cheerful blend of nihilism and sentimentality, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the heartwarming feel-bad movie of the summer. And both “heartwarming” and “feel-bad” are meant as compliments.
An action film about a world-destroying cataclysmic event can’t really be blamed for emphasizing the heroic triumph of the few over the slaughter of millions. It’s logical that most moviegoers would want to put themselves in the place of world-saving heroes (Armageddon) or among the few who escape mass death in a spaceship “ark” (When Worlds Collide, 2012). Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s innovation is to make an apocalypse movie about those left behind, and take it into realm of romantic comedy.
For romantic leads, Scafaria gives us the aptly named Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley). Dodge is a Manhattan insurance salesman who has been avoiding risk for most of his adult life. The result is that when the apocalypse appears on the horizon (in the form of an Earth-bound asteroid), his loveless marriage falls apart—his wife literally runs away from him—and he has no one to depend on. Penny is a perky late-20-something who lives just down the hall and has her own end of the world troubles: She manages to miss the last flight home to England and her family, but is at least proactive enough to dump her dull-witted boyfriend.
As a depressed man overwhelmed by failure, Carell is low-key but sharp; touring a survivalist’s bunker with “14-inch titanium walls,” his just-audible comment about it being a “perfect oven” stings. Knightley is exactly as charming and annoying as she needs to be as an adult clinging to habits of adolescence.
Their romantic road trip—he wants to find a long-lost lover, she wants to find a pilot to take her to England—is sweet, charming and mostly conventional. (The movie’s approach to sex is unusual, however, and probably wouldn’t have come from a male writer-director.) They get to know each other, meet interesting people, and have a lot of fun.
The romance is balanced by a cheeky nihilism that’s both unnerving and delightful. Middle-class people have orgies, shoot heroin, riot and hire professional killers. Patton Oswalt is very funny in a cameo as a creepy nerd turned hedonist, and Rob Corddry is even funnier as man who boils with rage at anyone in denial and encourages all sorts of terrible behavior, like urging his tween daughter to guzzle vodka (“drink through the burn”).
When the end comes, it’s frightening and sad—and that’s a compliment, too.