Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World offers the beats of a series of bad news / worse news jokes. This is not necessarily a good thing.
Bad news: In 21 days an asteroid will hit Earth and - boom! - bye-bye, life. Worse: Dodge (Steve Carell), a middle-aged middle manager, is abandoned by his spouse, Linda, who beelines for her lover and - bam! - bye-bye, wife. Dodge will die alone. (Inside joke: Linda is played by Carell's real-life spouse, Nancy.)
Bad news: Beset by anxiety, his friends party, shoot heroin, indulge in orgies. Worse: Dodge is too depressed to join in. Dodge will die alone, and stone-cold sober to boot.
Bad news: It's the end of days. Worse: There's no savior in sight. Dodge will die alone, without love or enlightenment.
That is, unless he keeps company with Penny (Keira Knightley), the alt-chick who lives downstairs, listens exclusively to vinyl, and conveniently has just kicked her live-in beau to the curb. For reasons of plot contrivance only, Penny has a stack of letters to Dodge that she failed to deliver. They are from the love of his life, expressing sorrow about their breakup.
There are worse things than watching downbeat Carell and upbeat Knightley pluck offbeat chords of connection and tenderness. Still, I expected that the screenwriter of the raffish romance Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist would have come up with something less conventional than the one about the middle-aged burnout who gets recharged by the electric younger woman.
Except for the very occasional threat of rioters and looters, Scafaria's view of the end times is strangely low-key and depopulated. Likewise placeless.
Presumably, Dodge and Penny are driving from New York to Delaware. When they stop in Camden to visit Penny's ex-ex (Derek Luke), a military guy who's built a bomb shelter, you can see a dramatic mountain range in the background. Somewhere a Jerseyan is laughing. Scafaria, herself a Jersey girl, knows there are no mountains like that in the state.
Befitting a Jersey native, Scafaria does structure her film as a turnpike odyssey with rest stops. Its one inspired sequence takes place in a T.G.I. Friday's-type restaurant called "Friendsy's," where the drugged-out and hormoned-up waitstaff is dancing till the world ends. (As Friendsy's overfriendly host, T.J. Miller is a hoot.)
Yet while Dodge and Penny are pleasant enough company, they don't strike sparks, and consequently Scafaria's movie never catches fire. The bad news: The end of the world comes with a whimper. Worse: And two wimps.