The dinner party three weeks from planetary apocalypse — that's when you realize things truly have gone sideways in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World." Folks are talking about whom to tell off in those last few, precious days before an asteroid strikes and wipes out all the things. Dads are feeding martinis to children and admonishing them to "fight through the burn." Oh, hey! Someone brought heroin! So the dental assistant shows how to tie off and cook up. Sobriety and monogamy are early casualties of doomsday. As one too-kissy wife explains, "Nobody is anybody's anything anymore."
The only person really struggling with all this forced hedonism is Dodge, an insurance-company mope inhabited by Steve Carell. He's packing an existential crisis and midlife crisis into a few bad weeks and an argyle sweater. After his wife ran out on him — literally sprinted, once they heard the news that the NASA mission to divert the asteroid had failed — he kept his old routines intact. Work, commute, home. But as the world unravels further, he crosses paths with a cheery, spacey Brit named Penny who lives in his building and hopes to find a plane she can catch across the pond. This is Keira Knightley, more than 20 years younger than Carell, completing the odd-couple for what amounts to a somewhat dark, somewhat romantic, somewhat comedy that seems to flow only episodically. "Seeking a Friend" never quite decides what it is, so what's left is very much up to the audience to decide. It's either bravely clunky or oddly pleasant or a missed chance at something sublime, if not all three.
Some props are due to writer and first-time director Lorene Scafaria for at least wringing some chuckles out of the disaster premise. She sets up four competing tensions for this short-timer world. The first is the obvious; when everyone knows they're going to die, there's an uptick in suicides and desperation sex and a decline in timely mail service. But Dodge, ever the office drone, exemplifies another camp of people whose denial holds civilization in some kind of order. His housekeeper insists on returning diligently, and elsewhere the good people of the world continue mowing their grass. This allows for the Dodge-Penny last-minute companionship to unfold with a degree of strained normalcy and getting-to-know-you chitchat. Meanwhile, though, it's hard to believe that most of the houses in the film haven't been burned to the ground by roving hordes of rapist-Huns. Instead, the lights in the fridge work and there's a noticeable lack of dog-gnawed corpses strewn around the yard. This is an apocalypse Scafaria doodled on a happy birthday napkin while the "Garden State" soundtrack piped through earbuds.
Not every end-of-the-world tale has to be "The Road," of course, but "Seeking a Friend" ought to have decided earlier just how it was going to balance the minor-key tone with its attempts at screwball humor. Those are, surprisingly, some of the funnier bits in the movie; a pit stop at a family restaurant called Friendsy's (delightful to say aloud) where the bubbly staff has decided to greet the end of the days high out of their minds. Aside from the sporadic laughs, the film is at its best in raising, if not ably answering, the questions around how to spend those last few days on the planet. Whom would you visit? Would they want to spend their last hours with you? Family comes first, but there's a value and a hope in strays adopting one another in those closing moments. It's last call, and if you find yourself kicking it with Keira Knightley just before the world gets exploded, you might as well consider yourself lucky.