“Melancholia” or Melan-comedy? Much like that awful pun to start this review, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” often teeters on the delicate see-saw of funny and just plain depressing. In brief bursts, it often has moments of humor that can garner a chuckle. Most of these jokes only play well to those with a love of irony and a willingness to accept a little bit of absurdity – because think too much and you might actually remember that these people are facing extinction.
That’s right, just as the title suggests, Lorene Scafaria’s debut feature opens at the close (a “Harry Potter” reference that should explain the earlier von Trier allusion). This apocalypse, however, feels nothing like the impending pit of doom that forms in our stomachs when watching “Contagion” or “Take Shelter,” two films heralding a modern end of days. Given three weeks notice of a massive asteroid impact that will end all life on Earth, we’ve been primed to expect massive riots, looting, and murder.
What Scafaria provides could perhaps best be described as “The Bucket List: Apocalypse Edition,” in which forty-year-olds simply act like college students by losing their inhibition for a brief period of time. Cocaine, adultery, you name it! But when the novelty of their “end of the world” party wears off, it’s time to get down to business – living out the romantic-comedy narrative that all of us must fulfill some time before we meet our maker. Oh, and there’s also a tiny riot just for kicks to advance the plot. In the quiet suburbs of New York City, you can barely tell that mankind’s demise is imminent because it feels so sanitized of conflict or anxiety. ”Apocalypse Now” or Apocalypse Lite? (Sorry, couldn’t resist another one.)
Yet simply because Steve Carell’s vanilla, insurance-selling sad sack Dodge reluctantly falls in love with Keira Knightley’s pot-smoking, free-spirited hypersomniac Penny in an archetypical narrative does not mean that the movie realizes that and tailors our experience to fit such a pattern. Instead, “Seeking a Friend” settles to provide a slightly satisfying film while it suffers from genre confusion. It toggles with high concept comedy a la “Horrible Bosses,” a road trip comedy a la “Due Date,” a meditation on loneliness a la “Up in the Air,” and, of course, the conventional opposites attract rom-com. While Knightley is all over the place, Carell excels by going dark and deep like he did in “Little Miss Sunshine,” although a fine performance can’t mask this film’s flaws. As much on screen as it must have been on the page, “Seeking a Friend” is really just seeking a genre. B- /