Here’s a curious notion: With the release of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World this Friday, movie theaters will play host to not one, but two, road-trip romantic comedies whose premises hinge on science fiction rather than the typical tropes of mistaken identity or an upcoming wedding. Seeking a Friend follows Safety Not Guaranteed, the time travel comedy starring Aubrey Plaza. Maybe two is too early to call a trend, but both movies are reaping the benefits of their screenwriters’ freedom to incorporate more daring elements into their typical rom-coms.
However, while Safety is clearly an indie (and therefore, you’re more likely to accept any plot risks), Seeking a Friend comes across as much more mainstream. After all, you’ve got Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as the unlikely friends: He’s channeling his sad middle-aged character from last year’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, and she’s traded in her period-film garb for a choppy haircut and a goofy grin. But what these well-known actors manage to do is portray two Everymen in extraordinary circumstances, and highlight how human relationships warp and strengthen when faced with a ticking time bomb.
An asteroid 70 miles wide is heading for Earth. It’s called Matilda, and all attempts to turn it away have failed spectacularly. At the start of the film, soft-spoken insurance salesman Dodge’s wife (Carell’s real-life spouse Nancy Carell) literally runs away from him, never to be seen again. His friends decide to spend their final days in a drug-fueled orgy, but Dodge wants his last actions on this planet to mean something. Similarly, his young neighbor Penny (Knightley) regrets missing her flight back to England to live out her final days with the family she’d always taken for granted. With nothing to bind them to their old lives, they set out with the clothes on their backs and a stolen car.
Seeking a Friend is the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, who wrote 2008’s hipster love story Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. You can glimpse a similar set-up here: Chance matches up awkward guy with freewheeling, music-loving Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But whereas this walking film trope usually improves the guy’s life and general outlook, Penny’s powers are limited considering Earth’s impending destruction.
Still, their road trip to track down Dodge’s high-school girlfriend Olivia is kooky without stretching the limits of believability, and littered with a host of fun cameos from recognizable actors. You’ve got William “Grissom from CSI” Petersen as a creepy truck driver and Community’s Gillian Jacobs as the hostess at a TGIFriday’s-style restaurant where the waiters have all taken E and spend their final days chowing on fried onion blossoms and humping.
Considering your views on love, you’re either completely floored or totally unfazed when Dodge and Penny start to fall for each other. Up until this point we’ve trusted Scafaria to ground her outrageous plot in realism, so we’re drawn in as she deftly handles the natural evolution from companionship to attraction to genuine love. In another world, these neighbors wouldn’t do more than smile at each other politely in the elevator. But Seeking a Friend proves that you don’t have to spend years of your life with someone for them to be your soulmate.
Okay, here’s where the real spoilers come in. The movie’s greatest strength is that it fully commits to the notion of the apocalypse. There’s no Armageddon-type last-ditch effort to blow up the asteroid. It’s not revealed to be some worldwide hallucination. The world ends while Penny and Dodge lay in bed face-to-face. (An ironic, slightly uneven aspect of the plot is that the movie seems to reach its end four different times, but you now know what to look out for.) They could be any couple caught up in those first weeks of love — drinking each other in, wanting to learn everything about the other — if not for the flaming rocks taking out buildings around them.
Dodge’s attempts to make grand gestures of reconciliation (including a visit to his estranged father, played by Martin Sheen) are admirable, but cast in the light of the apocalypse they’re always going to fall short. The lesson here is that instead of trying to rewrite the past, savor every millisecond of the present. And even though I’ve told you the ending of this movie, I’ve kept mum on most of the details (including the scene that had me sobbing like a fool at the press screening). Because this movie, like any apocalypse, is less about the inevitable ending and more about the tiny human moments along the way.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.