For its first half, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is as lost and out of sorts as its title.
Is it a comic romance set during Earth's final days, a dark lampooning of every "If I had a week to live"/"Party like it's 1999" cliché you've ever heard?
But Seeking is a movie you have to give time to work. It was written and directed by the woman who wrote Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, so you owe it that much.
Steve Carell stars as Dodge, an insurance salesman. And that adds to the confusion. On the phone with clients, he says, "I'm afraid the Armageddon package is extra."
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Do we laugh when, on hearing the news that a last-ditch space mission to stop an asteroid from crashing into Earth has failed, his wife leaps out of the car and runs away? Yeah, it's a little funny. Carell has built a career out of making put-upon seem funny.
The "End of the World" party Dodge attends — with couples, comically desperate to hook up with one, two or five last flings before the end, trying heroin for the first time, parents serving their kids' mixed drinks — is both amusing and very depressing.
Everyone around him is giving in to impulses, acting irrationally. But all Dodge can do is be sad, wonder about the "love of his life" who got away (not his wife) and slap up fliers with his phone number on them.
"Seeking a friend for the end of the world," they say.
He's alone, and this forlorn soul has 21 days to make a connection.
And then Dodge meets his neighbor. Penny (Keira Knightley) is many years his junior, a transplanted Brit whose flightiness and optimism have caused her to kick her boyfriend out and miss the last flight home to Britain to see her family.
Penny resolves to help Dodge make one last contact with the one who got away. And Dodge promises to get her onto a plane that will get her home before The End.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria aims for the sweet spot in this morbid setup, a kind of wistful, romantic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quest with two people on the empty roads getting to know each other in the little time they have left.
We meet one of Penny's exes, a Marine with survivalist tendencies (Derek Luke). He has surrounded himself with men from his unit and collected all the Smart Cars he can, for transportation after the asteroid ends Life on Earth.
The sunniest scene might be in a T.G.I. Friday's-style restaurant where the staff — led by the charmingly goofy T.J. Miller of She's Out of My League — goes on serving customers, getting drunk and throwing a rather giddy orgy.
Carell plays this depressed soul well, and Knightley ably delivers the bubbly free spirit her character suggests.
Scafaria has a lot of trouble finding the right tone for this. Jokes mix in with profundities, and Seeking a Friend burns through more lines with finality to them than half a dozen sci-fi epics.
By the third act, though, the tragedy and romance of it all start to pay off. Issues and feelings come into the open. Seeking a Friend finally finds its footing, and it finally seems to take its own message to heart: "Better late than never."