Chump is the color of Steve Carell. Again.
In a starring role that's just a shade darker than his cheated-on dad in last summer's paint-by-numbers Crazy Stupid Love, the actor again plays a cuckold trying to sort out midlife-crisis disappointments. This time, however, the Ryan Gosling assist comes courtesy of an Earth-killing asteroid.
That's the deadpan concept of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which delivers more on the friend and end conceits of its title (much of which you've already seen in its all-the-good-stuff trailer) than the seeking and world parts. Usually when movie couples fall in love fast, our suspension of disbelief is tied to the popcorn-fueled desire to see Actor A and Actor B mate for life, with a surety that eludes all but the least interesting of us. So there's something ingenious about trumping the usual order of things with a trope borrowed from films unromantic and uncomedic: the end of the world. But borrow something just before the death of everything and you won't get it back.
Oh, what Albert Brooks could have done with this idea if only he'd thought of it first. Or what Seeking's writer-director, Lorene Scafaria, might have done if she'd had confidence enough to pursue the departures from sanity allowed by this subgenre chartered over the past couple of years: middle-class apocalyptica.
Alas, Seeking isn't much more Armageddon-conscious than Scafaria's 2008 film, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, her Brooklyn-y, iTunes version of the old "it's just you and me, you sexy, plucky jerk" romance. (That movie has its bland charms, but it's no It Happened One Night.)
Oh, right, there's a plucky woman: Keira Knightley. A spiritual older sister to the Kat Dennings character of Nick and Norah, Knightley's Penny is the type to linger over her record collection before fleeing a burning building. (She settles on John Cale's Vintage Violence, among other unlikely contenders to soundtrack any survivors trying to reseed the planet; her love of Herb Alpert and Scott Walker — the U.K. mope-music godhead, not the Wisconsin governor — figures into things, too.) She's absent-minded, emotionally pure and sexually free — another manic pixie dream girl, in critic Nathan Rabin's memorable coinage. (He was talking about Elizabethtown casualty Kirsten Dunst, future star of Earth-go-boom showpiece Melancholia, in which she's plenty manic but no dream girl.)
The journey that Carell's Dodge (yes, that's his name) makes from sadness to fulfillment depends on a patience with Penny that the movie makes hard to fathom. Ah, but Dodge is a Terrence Malick fan. In one of Seeking's odd, weightless idylls, the pair almost run over a line of couples walking to a magic-hour-lighted beach. They leave their car and follow, watching as scores of men and women wait for their turn at a kind of Tree of Life-looking nuptial baptism. It should be beautiful, but it diffuses into a tides-and-sand montage like a more emotional Activia commercial.
To be fair, I missed the first 15 minutes of the screening — thereby doing without Patton Oswalt, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry and the rest of the SAG humanity promised by the preview and the poster. There was traffic. Maybe that first sixth of Seeking is time-capsule good. But the rest of it doesn't often rise above afternoon-cable passable, and dying in a highway pileup trying to see it would have made me feel like a Carell-character-sized chump.