Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a predictable, drawn-out romantic comedy that happens to be set in the shadow of impending apocalypse. Presumably the imminent asteroid-facilitated demise of the planet ups the stakes of the movie’s central romance, but mostly the film dispenses with the end-of-the-world craziness early on, the better to leave Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) alone together to realize what the viewer already knows: that the two are destined to be together.
Actually, given the differing temperaments and the lack of chemistry between the leads, this romantic coupling would by no means be a given, except that the formula of the genre demands it. None of this has much to do with the apocalyptic setting, except that Dodge and Penny might never have gotten together under “normal” circumstances and that the world’s looming demise causes the pair to reflect on their lives in ways that they might not otherwise have done, but which aren’t sufficiently developed to prove of much interest. Instead, the apocalypse seems like a new wrinkle to an old formula, the countdown to end of days—literal given the film’s title cards and on-screen news broadcasts reminding us how much time remains—reflecting the time-marking quality of the film’s romantic imperative.
Things start off rowdily enough with a series of scenes showing the general reaction to the situation. People riot freely in the street. At a party, upright middle-class people shoot heroin and fuck everyone in sight. (But not good-guy Dodge; crippled by the recent breakup of his marriage, he locks himself in the bathroom and turns down sex from his friend’s busty wife.) A few try to go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. But mostly these end-of-the-world reports are less funny than they should be, probably because Scafaria can’t really think up any vision of humanity’s last days that isn’t completely obvious—and also because hearing Patton Oswalt discourse on all the “pussy” he’s getting is far more off-putting than humorous.
But, excepting one pit stop that Dodge and Penny make at a Friendsy’s restaurant (seemingly an amalgam of TGI Friday’s and Friendly’s), where staff and clientele are completely given over to booze, drugs, and good vibes, you’d scarcely know the world was ending if the characters didn’t keep bringing it up. The pair treks across the East Coast trying to track down Dodge’s lost love and find an airplane so that the English Penny can hop across the pond to see her parents. But mostly the two fall slowly in love while they reflect ponderously on their lives or discuss the merits of vinyl records.
It’s really a problem of content here. Scarfaria has trapped herself within a certain formula and can’t think her way outside it. She tries the apocalypse angle, but that only gets her so far. So then she turns to fleshing out the characters, but there’s not much inner life that she’s able to dig up. So her task then becomes simply stretching the film out to feature length so that the central pair can waste a sufficient amount time before realizing they’re meant to be together—or at least to spend the waning moments of the Earth’s existence in each other’s arms.
Scarfaria manages to inject the film’s gently apocalyptic conclusion with a certain superficial poignancy, but it’s mostly a sleight of hand. In the film’s vision, the only thing worse than the world ending is not having anyone to share the planet’s final moments with. It’s an attitude of romantic defeatism whose sense of utter resignation makes nonsense of real-world efforts at preventing global catastrophe via climate change and anti-nuclear activism. But everything here is utter fantasy, apocalypse in service of the least complex forms of romanticism, a couple not even worried that the world is ending so long as they can curl up in bed together and be, simply, banally, in love.