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Laughs and tears come at 'the End of the World'

For its first half, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is as lost and out of sorts as its title.

Is it a comic romance set during Earth's final days, a dark lampooning of every If I had a week to live/Party like it's 1999 cliche you've ever heard?

But “Seeking” is a movie you have to give time to work. It was written and directed by the woman who wrote “Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist,” so you owe it that much.

Steve Carell stars as Dodge, an insurance salesman. And that adds to the confusion. On the phone with clients — “I'm afraid the Armageddon package is extra.”

Do we laugh when, on hearing the news that a last-ditch space mission to stop the asteroid Matilda from crashing into Earth has failed, his wife literally leaps out of the car and runs away? Yeah, it's a little funny. Carell has built a career out of making putupon seem funny.

The “End of the World” party Dodge attends — with couples, comically desperate to hook up with one, two or five last flings before the end comes, trying heroin for the first time, parents serving their kids' mixed drinks — is both amusing and very depressing.

Everyone around him is giving in to impulses, acting irrationally. But all Dodge can do is be sad, wonder about the “love of his life” who got away (not his wife) and slap up fliers with his phone number on them.

“Seeking a friend for the end of the world.” He's alone and this forlorn soul has 21 days to make a connection.

“You're going to die alone,” a friend complains. “He's going to die with everybody else,” is her husband's comeback.

And then Dodge meets his neighbor. Penny (Keira Knightley) is many years his junior, a transplanted Brit whose flightiness and optimism have caused her to a) kick her boyfriend out and b) miss the last flight home to the UK to see her family.

Penny resolves to help Dodge make one last contact with the one who got away. And Dodge promises to get her onto a plane that will get her home before The End.

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria aims for the sweet spot in this morbid setup, a kind of wistful, romantic "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" quest with two people on the empty roads getting to know one another in the little time they have left.

We meet one of Penny's exes, a Marine with survivalist tendencies (Derek Luke). He's surrounded himself with men from his unit and collected all the Smart Cars he can, for transportation after the asteroid ends Life on Earth.

The sunniest scene may be in a T.G.I.Fridays style-restaurant, where the staff — led by the charmingly goofy T.J. Miller of “She's Out of My League” — goes on serving customers, getting drunk and throwing a rather giddy orgy.

Carell plays this depressed soul well, and Knightley ably delivers the bubbly “free spirit” her character suggests.

Scarafia has a lot of trouble finding the right tone for this. Jokes mix in with profundities, and “Seeking a Friend” burns through more lines with finality to them than half-a-dozen sci-fi epics.

Dodge is nobody to anybody. “Nobody's anybody's anything anymore,” he sighs.

But by the third act, the tragedy and romance of it all start to pay off. Issues and feelings come out into the open. “Seeking a Friend” finally finds its footing, and finally seems to take its own message to heart:“Better late than never.” ■

'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' (末日倒數怎麼伴?) ► Directed by Lorene Scafaria / With Steve Carell, Keira Knightley and Melanie Lynskey / Drama, Romance / 2012 / USA, Singapore / 101 min. / English with Chinese subtitles / Now Showing / ★★★☆☆

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