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MOVIE REVIEW: Carell, Knightley turn apocalypse into rom-com with ‘Seeking a Friend’

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (R)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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This film image released by Focus Features shows Keira Knightley as Penny, left, and Steve Carell as Dodge in a scene from "Seeking A Friend for the End of the World." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Darren Michaels)

For the second time in as many weeks a rookie filmmaker has pushed the bounds of the generally predictable and tired romance genre with something we've never seen before. Like the equally sublime "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" both tugs at the heart and tickles the funny bone while tossing tiny bits of sci-fi in for good measure.

The casting of leads Steve Carell (as Dodge) and Keira Knightley (as Penny) will initially strike many as being far from cinematically ideal. Neither of them has ever been regarded as a powerhouse dramatic performer and only one of them is in possession of anything resembling dependable comedic chops. He's 23 years older than her and even by Hollywood standards, that's too much of an age disparity. At first pass, their pairing is just a tad bit creepy.

To our relief, screenwriter ("Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") and first-time director Lorene Scafaria also recognizes the possible squirm factor and introduces Dodge and Penny as strangers living in the same New York apartment building that have both just broken up with their respective mates. His wife leaves him for reasons we aren't told (or need to know) and she's dumped the latest (Adam Brody) in a long line of slacker losers.

Before we even meet Dodge and Penny, Scafaria begins unfolding the plot and it is brilliant. In 21 days, a 700 mile-wide meteor will strike the Earth and kill everyone on the planet. That's it -- your time is up. If you knew for a certainty that you would be dead in three weeks, what would you do? How would you use that precious time? You can't spend whatever money you might have squired away because it's worthless. The gasoline supply has run out, telephones don't work and worldwide air travel has ceased.

Despite the bummer news, most people are taking it all in stride and a few are making lemonade out of it. As one character drunkenly points out, the sexual playing field has been leveled because women no longer care about long-term commitment, the gene pool or AIDS. Some straight-laced folks decide to try heroin for the first time. Servers at restaurants don't charge for food or drink and some of them will wantonly grope you -- and you might not mind.

Dodge and Penny aren't into any of that. In a cleverly crafted plot twist, he decides he'll track down his high-school sweetheart -- the love of his life; the one that got away (Scafaria by way of still photos). Realizing she can't fly back to England to be with her family -- and feeling guilty about something involving Dodge -- she decides to help him on the ex-girlfriend-tracking mission.

After an interesting and jarring encounter with a depressed trucker (William Petersen), the pairs' apocalyptic road trip hits a few bumps and starts to drag a bit, which, in retrospect, works out just fine. With the start of the third act, Scafaria, the leads and the narrative hit full-speed stride which culminates in a galvanizing and surprisingly optimistic finale.

Echoing the same calm, hangdog but glass half-full tone he employed in "Crazy, Stupid, Love.," Carell's Dodge is the film's anchor of reason and resolve. Without going all weepy, histrionic or falsely profound, the character is pragmatically clear-eyed and embodies what Tony Soprano regularly referred to as the "strong, silent Gary Cooper type." Dodge is the kind of guy you want around when everything else is coming unglued.

Sporting an unflattering hairdo, a frumpy house dress and sneakers, Knightley plays against her mostly glamorous past resume by rendering Penny as a young woman who realizes, perhaps too late, that she's had her priorities out of whack for far too long. Clutching a stack of eclectic LPs (by Lou Reed, John Cale and Herb Alpert among others) while extolling the virtues of vinyl, she is determined to spend whatever time is left unselfishly and without regret.

The final and most resounding victory belongs to Scafaria. Juggling gut-busting, knowing, occasionally ribald humor with poignant, life-affirming, but sometimes heartbreaking drama, she gives us imperfect characters that are gloriously and eminently human alongside a story that will forever alter (for the better) our perceptions of love and death. (Focus Features)