"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is an optimist's view of the apocalypse.

Doomsday films have been popular lately, probably because the world is going to end this year (according to the Mayan calendar, at least). Recent movies like "Melancholia," "Contagion" and "Take Shelter" are based on the common and understandable belief that our impending doom would be the ultimate misanthropic spectacle, a final chance for humanity to reveal its true ugliness.

This is a comedy that thinks differently, and realizes that tragedy has a surprising way of bringing out the best in many people.

We don't learn much about the cause of our demise in this film, except that an asteroid named Matilda will hit Earth in three weeks, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. "Seeking a Friend," like most of its characters, has a whimsical, almost detached perspective on annihilation. With 21 days remaining, life continues with minimal disruption: Sports games are still held, magazines put out special issues commemorating the human race, restaurants stay open. Yes, there are also some break-ins, suicides and other bursts of violence. But the general mentality seems to be: Why stay mad about things when there are so many final parties to attend?

At the center of this withering world is Dodge (Steve Carell), who acts especially unperturbed. He's such a constrained man that his wife literally runs away from him upon hearing about the asteroid. He even still shows up for work as an insurance salesman (for once, he's actually in high demand for his job). While his friends fill their remaining days with easy sex and free drugs, Dodge mostly sits at home. He's not living every day like it's his last; he's living his last days like they're every other day.

That's until he meets Penny (Keira Knightley), a perky British neighbor who has apocalyptic romance issues of her own. A riot forces them out of their apartment building and they journey through the remaining days together. He carries a dog that was dropped into his care by a stranger; she carries a stack of albums that she carefully selected even as she had to run for her life. There's no better way to summarize their personalities.

This film marks the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, who also wrote the screenplay and previously wrote "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." Like that film, this one has a deep and earnest investment in its leading couple, and a delicate way of sidestepping the obvious, even if it will still get there eventually. For such a clever concept, there are too many coincidences and contrivances, but "Seeking a Friend" is constantly surprising in its handling of the comedy, tragedy and conventions of its setup.

Dodge and Penny will develop feelings, obviously, but that's attended to quickly and casually. They both have bigger priorities: He wants to reconnect with an old flame, and she wants to reach her family across the pond. They'll encounter many setbacks, but mostly they meet groups of good people who want to help. There's even a small, subtly beautiful scene with a gathering on a beach that's more transcendental than the one that concluded "The Tree of Life."

It's all a refreshing break from the usual doomsday chaos. It also makes for an ending that, even for the apocalypse, is especially devastating, because it's so intimately focused on two characters who developed their own world apart from the one that has reached its end.




Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)    

STARRING: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Connie Britton    

DIRECTOR: Lorene Scafaria    

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes    

RATING: R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.    

THE LOWDOWN: Two adults journey through their last days before an asteriod destroys the world.