Like the romance it portrays, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is brief, sweet, funny and sad. It's also tonally uncertain and occasionally foolish, but somehow these flaws never derail the story's wistful pleasures, not the least of which — if we ignore an unpleasant speech by Patton Oswalt — is its pleasing lack of the frat-boy vulgarity that has come to define so much of the genre.
Even when wobbling dangerously between tragedy and comedy, Lorene Scafaria's screenplay (she also directed) resists the lifeline of cheap-and-cheesy: She'd rather end a scene with a question mark than a dirty laugh.
Brevity is the film's mantra and driving force — specifically, if an asteroid were scheduled to pulverize your planet in exactly 21 days, how would you spend your time?
It's a fascinating question that Scafaria never fully explores, mainly because she's not that kind of filmmaker.
Hers is a microview: Like her 2008 script for the charming Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which unspooled over the course of one tune-filled night, Seeking a Friend filters big themes through the lens of a single, tentative relationship.
On one side we have Dodge (Steve Carell at his most crestfallen), an insurance-company drone whose wife has fled to the arms of her secret lover.
On the other floats Penny (Keira Knightley), a flappable pixie with a wrong-for-her boyfriend and a fanatical attachment to her vinyl record collection. Penny, it seems, bonds best with people — and objects — that require a lot of nurturing.
Thrown together during a riot (riots and raves appear to be humanity's top two end-of-days choices), Dodge and Penny make a rather uneven deal: She will help him locate his first love if he will help her reach her family in England.
As title cards and TV news mark the apocalyptic countdown, the movie becomes a quirky travelogue peppered with offbeat, episodic encounters.
While some are more successful than others — a stopover with Penny's survivalist ex-boyfriend subtly nails the way past loves prepare us for their successors — together these segments create an emotionally off-kilter atmosphere that feels appropriately precarious. One hinges on such a shocking development that, for a second, laughter and horror are one and the same.
Stumbling occasionally but never completely falling, Seeking a Friend faces the fear of death not with images of widescreen digital destruction but with small moments that sidle up when we least expect them.
In this the film is helped immensely by the casting of Carell, an actor who carries an inner wound into every role. Dodge looks like a man who has lived with knowledge of the apocalypse all his life, and Carell uses that terror to isolate his characters. Watching a scene where Dodge is expected to participate in a suburban orgy, I couldn't imagine another performer of his generation so clearly embodying socially awkward alienation.
Filled with poignant nudges toward human connection — including the final sign off of an emotional news anchor — this uneven disaster comedy has no need of the couple's unconvincing declarations of love. Their friendship is miracle enough. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.