In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, there’s no secret how the world will end. It’s announced right away over a car radio that a 70-mile wide asteroid called “Matilda” is on a collision course with Earth. The car’s passengers are Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell). They’re parked, and for a moment, look stunned by the news. She takes action before he does, bolting from the car into the twilight, never to be heard from again.
Dodge stays behind in the car, then makes his way home to his apartment in New Jersey. The scene where Linda leaves him is odd, even briefly comic, as is much of Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut (she wrote this film as well as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). So too, Dodge solicits mixed reactions. Though he’s smart and responsible, he encounters repeated awkward situations with awkward people: even if the film’s ending is preordained, the route to it is uncertain.
While Dodge maintains a semblance of normal life, his friends turn to inebriation as a way to distract themselves. Warren (Rob Corddry) has given up on raising his children properly encouraging them to imbibe alcohol. At Warren’s end of the world party, Roache (Patton Oswalt) takes Dodge aside to explain the unlimited sexual potentials of their terminal situation. Karen (Melanie Lynskey) tries to seduce Dodge, but he’s stuck in his rut, unable to share his life—or death, apparently.
This changes when he meets Penny (Keira Knightley), a neighbor who has a passion for vinyl records, weed, and romance. She reignites Dodge’s interest in a high school flame (“the one that got away”), when she hands him a letter from said flame inadvertently delivered to her mailbox. Penny has her own predicament, being stranded far from her family back in the UK when the airlines stop flying. With only days left before the asteroid hits, looters hit the streets. As they approach Dodge and Penny’s building, the pair decide to flee in her hybrid car, trying to make good on their last wishes: he wants to find the ex and she wants to get home. Dodge promises her he can help: he knows someone with a plane.
The movie thus sets up for their romance, as the film veers from science fiction to road trip movie to romantic comedy. They take their time getting to it, losing and finding vehicles, meeting assorted people, along the way. Their first sexual connection follows one of the movie’s funnier sequences, a pit stop at a flair-filled restaurant called Friendsies; the two narrowly escape before an impromptu orgy breaks out, the idea of which inspires them to act on their own drunken impulses, even if it means they’ll need to backtrack the next day, in order to keep each other focused on their separate goals, to get home and to find the ex.
The artificial bind they’ve forged for themselves is visualized in a scene a little later down the road, Penny and Dodge are locked up in jail, caught speeding by a pitiless police officer. Here Dodge shares his life story, the banal stuff he’s avoiding hearing from others. When the camera captures a glimpse of Penny’s face, she’s pensive in the way that signals the relationship will change again, back to the romance. Dodge resists for a while longer, but it’s not long before he too is gazing on her in a tight close-up, with deep affection. When they arrive at the home of Penny’s ex, Speck (Derek Luke), it turns out he’s a military survivalist, with a SAT phone that allows her to call home. Watching her tear up, Dodge is a goner.
It still takes him a few scenes to realize it, during which Carell’s earnest, low-key performance helps us to see Dodge not only as trustworthy and likeable, but also, vulnerable and increasingly wise. We root for him because, as he’s coming to the end of his timid life, Dodge finds adventure. That said, his relationship with Penny remains a convenience, a means to that adventure, whish is to say, it’s hard for us to root for them to be together, much less to hope Earth will endure the collision with the asteroid. Dodge and Penny’s sweet interactions may charm the audience. But their prolonged journey to intimacy is not enough to stop the end of the world or create our belief in an improbable romance.