In “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) has 21 days to live. After living the better part of life in a safety net, he has every right to be selfish. Everything he has ever done — every good and bad deed — will be erased. These 21 days are all that remains.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

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As much a humanist story as a screwball rom-com, “Seeking a Friend” asks its audience some big questions. While its script may often be contrived, it at least does so with a wicked sense of humor and very human stories.

Dodge is on a mission to find his high school sweetheart. Accompanying him is the spritely hypersomniac Penny Lockhart (Kiera Knightly, “A Dangerous Method”). Together, they witness all the despair, debauchery and grace of which humanity is capable. And, as all these things go, they fall in love. Cute, huh?

What separates this apocalypse film from so many others is its treatment of people. In “Seeking a Friend,” people commit suicide. Some take heroin because they can and others riot in the streets. But there are others who possess great poise — a homeowner, maybe a father, mowing his lawn; two old ladies looking at their precious antiques; a newscaster who never leaves his desk. “Seeking a Friend” does not simply use people as astroid fodder (See: “Armageddon”). It examines humanity in its most dire circumstance.

But that’s not to say “Seek a Friend” forgets to have some fun. Even when all hope is gone, people can still make a joke. As one character says, “This isn’t the Ark; this is the Titanic!” Director/writer Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Inifinte Playlist”) has razor-sharp wit. Her directorial debut has the dark whimsy and raunch of a damn good “South Park” episode, but also the requisite tenderness and romance audiences want and expect.

For many, the tonal shifts might prove too jarring. Even worse, some scenes of the film, which take up a good chunk of time, are unnecessary and contrived. Along the way, Dodge and Penny meet a trucker, a cop and Penny’s old boyfriend. In a good “road movie,” the people the characters meet during their traveling should be more significant than a car ride. The only substantial character they meet is Dodge’s father, Frank (Martin Sheen, “The Way”). That said, their very emotional meeting with Frank is almost unearned.

Luckily for Scafaria, her casting was perfect. Overcoming the contrivances of her script, the performances are always authentic and moving. Knightley is eccentric, emotional and impulsive. When she speaks of her records — her dearest friends — she does it with love and convincing knowledge. As for Steve Carell, America’s favorite nice guy, you’ve never felt more sorry for the poor guy. His performances are best when they’re understated and here, he’s as likable and relatable as ever.

“Seeking a Friend” is a romantic film in every sense of the word. For some people, the world’s end strips away all hope and purpose. For Dodge, the world’s end strips away inhibition, fear and hate. There is no time for the past. It takes a giant astroid to get him to do the things he always should’ve done. One can only hope that in our normal everyday lives we live as fully as Dodge had in his last few moments. No shame. No regret. No fear.

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