Here is the bad news: a seventy mile wide asteroid is on collision course with Planet Earth and due to wipe out all humanity when it hits - the mission to stop it has failed. The good news, well, we won't have long to wait for our extinction, just a matter of three weeks. The second she hears that on the radio, the wife of insurance salesman Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) immediately jumps out of the car they've been sitting in and runs out of his life, what's left of it, forever, leaving him pondering his next move. Does he continue as normal, now that nobody has anything left to live for?
Dodge has given up hope of a meaningful end to the world, for him at least, and for everyone else as the result of our impending doom is not some kind of move towards sprituality or getting along with your fellow human now there's no reason to be antagonistic towards each other, but as far as we see the population of the globe start acting even worse to one another, either mindlessly hedonistic or actively aggressive. Anyone holding out for some kind of redemption for the worst behaviour of humanity wouldn't find it in Dodge's existence, and for a while writer and director Lorene Scafaria's debut at the helm of her own movie is looking bleak.
Which is odd when to some appearances this is a comedy, though rather than gallows humour she found precious little to laugh at unless it was the hollow laugh of the utterly defeated. This was the film she made after adapting Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a cult movie which found warm appreciation in some quarters, and so it was here as it wasn't any kind of blockbuster, but those who did like it tended to like it a lot, and forget the grumblers who said it was a Last Night rip-off. Actually, it was perhaps a tad too easy to take against the way it went from a morose "What's the point?" mood to something far more unashamedly sentimental, but if you felt invested in Dodge's predicament and were not sick of people telling you the end was nigh, in fiction or real life, there was worth in this.
What offers our hero his worth is when he happens to meet cute (though she is crying her eyes out) with his ex-pat neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) who is feeling down because she won't be able to see her family back in England before the big rock hits. All planes are cancelled, the phone network is down, and just at the time we should be feeling more connected than ever it's the time we're feeling most alone. Recognising this, when an End Times riot breaks out in New York City, Dodge's first thought is to rescue Penny (and pick up the dog a stranger left with him with the note "Sorry"), so after negotiating with her no good boyfriend (Adam Brody, one of a clutch of extended cameos from famous actors here) they drive off on a mission.
That mission is to find a pilot Dodge knows so he can fly Penny out of the country, and for him track down the high school sweetheart he has just received a letter from three months late, telling him that he was the love of her life and she wishes they could have been together all this time. Understandably Dodge has mixed feelings about this, but he wants some meaning in his last days, dammit, and a road movie is as good a plot as any to embark on when the final curtain nears. Yet along the way, he finds like in the Stephen Stills song the passage through life is as significant with Penny as it is with the one he left behind many years ago, learning to accept that Penny is as good a companion as anybody, and in many ways the best he could have. Carell plays the sadfaced protagonist with more depth of melancholy than many would have dared, and if Knightley is required by the script to err on the side of quirk, they do make a sweet couple, so if you're charmed by this you might be quite touched by its heartfelt concerns by the close. Loads of old songs on the soundtrack help.