Keira Knightley as Penny, left, and Steve Carell as Dodge in a scene from 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.' / Darren Michaels/Focus Features
Steve Carell has a hangdog appeal that’s served him well as a fake television reporter, misguided boss and, in film, a sweet, romantic, often-overwhelmed guy.
There’s comfort in watching him. He’s easy to root for. Handsome in an offbeat, regular-guy way, he plays characters that are essentially decent -- even when they’re annoying rubes like Michael Scott in the American version of “The Office.”
He’s back at it again in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer and director Lorene Scafaria’s funny, affecting film about €1/8 well, the title is no joke. The film begins with a radio report breaking into music, reporting that the last chance we had of deflecting a massive asteroid hurtling toward Earth has failed. The world will end in 21 days. And now, back to classic hits. €1/8
It is a kind, gentle ending of the world for the most part. Some people kill themselves, and eventually others get around to rioting. But Scafaria gives her characters and the situation an absurdist tone that makes the whole concept a little more palatable.
Everyone reacts differently. Dodge (Carell) hears the radio report with his wife -- who promptly, literally runs away. He still reports to his job as an insurance salesman every day, but his heart’s not in it, or anything else. How could it be? It’s interesting to see the different reactions people have. Some jump out windows. Others, like Dodge’s friend Warren (Rob Corddry), embrace a more carpe diem approach; in one scene he’s helping a kid chug a martini. You wonder how you would react. Warren’s wife Diane (Connie Britton) has her own way of coping, which Dodge rejects. Dodge’s maid will be coming next Wednesday, even if there isn’t one.
Mostly Dodge drinks cough syrup and mopes, at least at first. And then one day he notices Penny (Keira Knightley) weeping on his fire escape. Her family is in England, and flights have been suspended — forever. She won’t be able to see them again, and regrets the times she’s wasted with the wrong guys, among other distractions. (Adam Brody is funny as the latest of them.)
She has also accumulated, without meaning to, a collection of Dodge’s mail that the postman put in her box by mistake. She gives him a stack of letters, and one turns out to be from a woman named Olivia -- the one who got away years ago. With the world ending, Olivia decided to get back in touch -- and signed her letter, “You were the love of my life.” After his initial astonishment fades, Dodge and Penny decide to go on what they both recognize is probably a quixotic journey €“ a road trip to find Olivia and to find a guy Dodge knows who used to have a plane; if he still has it, perhaps he would be willing to fly Penny to England to visit her family. (There is no longer cell phone or land line service, so they can’t just call.)
It is probably no surprise that they will bond along the way, as they face obstacles and share adventures. What is so surprising is how affecting it all is. The entire world is off the grid; an accidental visit to a chain restaurant goes from funny to weird to €1/8 well, you can discover it for yourself. But here, as elsewhere, Scafaria continues her theme: If you knew you only had a few days left -- if everyone had only a few days left -- how would you spend them?
The tone shifts substantially as the film goes on, with fewer laughs as the odd couple gets closer to their destinations. Some of it is a bit melodramatic, but that’s fine -- Carell and Knightley, as their chemistry begins to blend, by this point have earned it. One scene in particular is rather shameless in its grab for your heartstrings. But you know what? It got mine. And how. Some people might feel manipulated, played. I did not. I liked ”Seeking a Friend for the End for the end of the World“ quite a bit, the notes it hit, the questions it asked. And if Scafaria is guilty of playing on emotions, at least she’s good at it.