One of the nerviest dramas of the season can be mistaken for a soft, sentimental story about a lonely middle-aged sad sack whose encounter with a quirky younger woman inspires him to make amends with his past and face the future with new serenity. The trick is, there is no future. And Seeking a Friend for the End of the World ponders human behavior in the face of impending oblivion with an idiosyncratic, explosion-free bittersweetness I haven't seen since well, since Don McKellar's excellent, bittersweet 1999 end-of-the-world reverie, Last Night.
Written and directed with blithe chutzpah and good instincts by Lorene Scafaria (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist), the movie opens with the news, delivered in calm, TV-anchorman tones, that an asteroid hurtling toward Earth will destroy the planet in three weeks. After that, all genre-convention bets are off. Scafaria circumvents expectations at every turn, beginning with the pairing of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as downer Dodge and punchy Penny. The unlikely him-and-her buddy combo is odd to the point of fascination: Thrown together on a time-sensitive road trip to find the high school love of Dodge's life, the two appear sometimes to be driving through Jim Jarmusch territory, other times along Tree of Life highways. In our summertime-movie world of aliens and superheroes who look all too familiar, Dodge and Penny look all the rarer in their precious humanity. B+