In Michael Bay’s Armageddon, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and their posse borrow a couple of shuttles and head out into space to blow up an asteroid that’s heading straight for Earth. It’s got bad dialogue and a terrible Aerosmith song, and there’s never really much doubt about whether they’re going to succeed. You’ve probably seen it, but if you haven’t, here’s a spoiler: Willis sacrifices himself to save all of us. Thanks, man.
In the initial moments of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which opens Friday, June 22, we learn that a similar team of scientists and astronauts totally failed, an asteroid is still barreling toward us and everyone on the planet has just three weeks to live. That’s it. There’s nothing to be done. We’re completely fucked. And that, my friends, is a terrific way to start a movie. It’s a great idea, and director Lorene Scafaria, who also wrote the screenplay, follows with an absolutely inspired first act that’s just searing dark comedy.
The problem, though, is that she doesn’t seem to know where to go from there—or, more specifically, she feels she has to leave that paradigm and move to something more serious. So, when the film begins, you’re dealing with a hysterically funny breakdown of society. By the time you get to the end, the mood has grown considerably more somber, and, in the middle, there’s a meandering road movie that feels like it’s pandering to an audience that can’t wait for The Hangover 3.
In the midst of all this is Dodge, played by Steve Carell. His wife has left, and he’s adrift, even though all his friends are binge drinking, experimenting with serious drugs and having as much promiscuous sex as possible, because—well, why the hell not? But Dodge doesn’t know what to do with himself. Also, he’s an insurance salesman, so you know he’s uptight and straight-laced. His downstairs neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), on the other hand, is a free spirit, so you know she’s flaky and into vinyl, and once they’ve met over a crying jag on the fire escape, the two find themselves bonding over their impending fate. (Scafaria has a history of putting people who have nothing in common together—she wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.) Once things start to fall apart for Dodge and Penny, they find themselves on the road together. He’s seeking the one that got away, she wants to see her family across the ocean. Both of them are going to die.
Once it hits the road, though, this movie loses its way. It turns out that it’s more enjoyable to watch humanity sort out its imminent demise than it is to watch Dodge deal with his problems. Dodge and Penny’s needs aren’t as interesting as the larger breakdown of civilization, especially when you’ve got a guy like Patton Oswalt trying to get with as many women as possible. Famous faces pop up throughout the film, but they frequently serve to slow the story down rather than get our characters where they’re going.
Now, that isn’t to say that it’s all bad. Carell is back in his Crazy, Stupid, Love mode—charming, sweet and pitiable—and Knightley is terrifically enjoyable, doing her most interesting work in some time. But the chemistry between them doesn’t sizzle, and when we get to the end, when we get to the moment of truth, it’s hard to understand why these two woe-begotten souls cling to one another. Also, to be honest, it’s a bit disconcerting that the film ends the way it does; it feels miles away from the opening act.
That makes sense, I guess, because at the end of the day, the end of the world is deathly serious. I just preferred the part of this film that isn’t.
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