A giant asteroid dubbed Matilda speeds towards Earth in writer/director Lorene Scafaria's new film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. There are just 21 days before the collision, but that's still plenty of time for some deep soul-searching from the film's leading man Dodge (Steve Carell).
In place of the kind of space-set pyrotechnics seen in the likes of Armageddon and Deep Impact, Scafaria zeroes in on the personal effect of the impending apocalypse. It's territory familiar to those who've seen Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Don McKellar's Last Night, yet Seeking a Friend tackles the end of days with a wry comic touch.
The story opens with Dodge's wife leaving him as a radio announcer declares that mankind is doomed. This metaphorical and literal world-crashing-down sequence barely shakes him out of his melancholy mood - he dutifully carries on working (in the insurance business), while his friends Diane (Connie Britton) and Warren (Rob Corddry) attempt to cajole him into dating their loopy friend Karen (Melanie Lynskey) and shooting up heroin.
Dodge declines the hedonism, instead quietly going about his everyday business. However, an encounter with his sobbing neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) and the discovery of a months-old letter from first love Olivia throws him for a loop and the pair team up to help each other in their last days. Hitting the road, he sets out to reunite with his lost love while she seeks a flight back to the UK to be with her parents.
Scafaria has remarked that her tale is one of an "unexpected romance blossoming between two strangers while on an impromptu road trip", and it's this central idea that's foregrounded in favour of mass chaos. There are riots glimpsed, but overall the film skirts around the larger social impact of the killer asteroid. It's almost as if the giant rock is present only to start these road movie romance cogs turning.
Carell and Knightley make an odd couple, but there's clear chemistry even though the leading lady seems a tad miscast in a kooky chick role that's perhaps more suited for Winona Ryder or Zooey Deschanel.
There are a moments of brilliance in Seeking a Friend, yet these are few and far between and as a whole the movie never quite hangs together in a satisfying way. The insane party animal behaviour from Dodge's pals and the debauched goings-on from the staff of TGI Friday's restaurant knock-off Friendsy's are particular highlights, as is Carell's ongoing struggle to fire his cleaning lady.
Ultimately, though, the film doesn't make enough of its apocalyptic premise and instead plods through formulaic romantic clichés. When all's said and done, the film goes out with a whimper instead of a bang.