Another asteroid barrels toward Earth in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, bringing two unlikely people into each other’s orbit: a lovable little man, Dodge (Steve Carell), whose wife, on learning that the apocalypse is imminent, leaves him with no preamble — not a word — for her lover; and a flaky young chick, Penny (Keira Knightley), with a string of failed relationships and in desperate need of a transcendental hug.
The writer-director, Lorene Scafaria, maintains a shaky balance between satire and poignancy — no mean feat. There is an “End of the World Awareness Concert” and a “Best of Humanity” magazine issue on the stands. A few people continue to show up for work at Dodge’s insurance company (they have an “Armageddon Package”), and Dodge’s Spanish-speaking cleaning woman, Elsa (Tonita Castro), has an apparent inability to process the idea that she should spend her last days with her family instead of coming once a week to mop his floors. (This is borderline offensive for all kinds of reasons.) At a cocktail party, middle-aged, middle-class people do heroin (it’s on the bucket list) and jump into bed with one another’s spouses — but Dodge runs away from the empty, desperate sex, still in mourning for lost loves.
Seeking a Friend … is a gentle, wistful film, a humanist rejoinder to Lars von Trier’s nihilistic Melancholia, the prevailing tone not bitterness but regret over lives not fully lived. I never surrendered to it, though, because Carell doesn’t break out of his usual persona. As good as he is, he’s small — an earnest schlump.
In the sixties, former New York theater critic John Simon attacked what he called the Lovable Little Man (LLM) Syndrome, which opts for mindless pathos over drama. In most of his movies, Carell is the archetypal LLM. He’s sweet and without guile, yet rejected or overlooked until a woman opens herself to his inner incandescence. In Seeking a Friend … Carell’s Dodge is supposed to be so knotted up with anger at a father (Martin Sheen) who abandoned him that he can’t take chances and commit — hence his name. Scafaria has cited Albert Brooks’s wonderful Defending Your Life as an example of a character realizing too late that he never had the courage to seize the day, but Brooks’s character was endlessly and hilariously reactive, offering running commentary on his soul-eroding foul-ups. Carell, despite the anger in his eyes, is soft, so soft. There’s nothing for Knightley’s Penny to do but fall in love with him. You know that underneath her spikiness, she’s sensitive. She worships vinyl.
Knightley gets to use her real, English accent, but she has a terminal case of lockjaw, and the screwball spirit seems put on, as if she’s channeling Rachel Weisz. It’s another good-try performance. The whole movie is a good try. Scafaria has written a lovely, affecting scene for Carell and Sheen as the awkward father who can’t say much of anything, only listen and nod sadly as his son says the words that have so long been unsaid. The punchline to the scene is blown, though. Scafaria bathes a father-son montage in the Hollies’s “The Air That I Breathe,” so that when Knightley’s Penny looks out the window to see the pair on a bench playing their harmonicas together, what you hear is … “The Air That I Breathe.” The approaching end of the world needs more than a sentimental ballad. You need to breathe the characters’ air.