Keira Knightley's biggest flaw as an actress is her perfectly beautiful face. Other actresses are cuter, more voluptuous or sexier on the whole, but no one else has features that look like instructional models for cosmetic surgeons: those high cheekbones, that tiny nose, that sharp jaw line, that toothy smile. Looking into Knightley's face is like staring into a spotlight; it blinds us to everything around it. No doubt, Knightley's incredible beauty has been a key component of her fast-rising Hollywood stardom, which began a decade ago with the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham, exploded a year later with The Pirates of the Caribbean and reached Oscar status with her Best Actress nomination for 2005's Pride & Prejudice, just to name a few highlights, but Knightley's gorgeousness makes it difficult for her to disappear inside her roles. She's a natural for playing objects of desire, as in Love Actually or Atonement, but when she plays someone damaged, such as in last year's A Dangerous Method, or merely plain, as in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it's rarely love at first sight.
This is the long way around to pointing out that, on the surface of things, Knightley appears to be grossly miscast as Penny, the little bit damaged, little bit plain and little bit quirky young woman with a deadbeat boyfriend and a solid record collection who, thanks to Knightley, is still a lot gorgeous. Knightley doesn't just clash with her character, she's also at visual odds with her costar, Steve Carell, whose familiar everyman persona is so extraordinarily ordinary that he makes Jimmy Stewart look like, well, Cary Grant. Carell characters aren't supposed to be in love entanglements with Knightly characters. They're supposed to manage paper companies in Scranton and hold onto their virginity for several decades. They're supposed to be in love with women played by Amy Ryan, Catherine Keener or Tina Fey - attractive women, all of them, but not candidates to be the face of Chanel or a Russian romance saga. Carell is meant to play guys named Dodge, which is precisely what he does here. Knightley is meant to star opposite men who look like Ferraris.
But as it turns out, the mismatching of Knightley and Carell is core to Seeking's charm and its themes. Set amidst a countdown to, you guessed it, the end of the world (an asteroid is on the way), Seeking explores how mankind's tendency to operate on autopilot causes us to ignore the earth-shattering truths within us. We stay in relationships that don't make us happy. We work for promotions that don't fulfill us. We hold grudges that don't satisfy our pain. And so on. Finding peace isn't about crossing items off a bucket list, it's simply about seeing things as they are. Except that seeing things as they are is rarely simple - a point Seeking underlines with a sporadically hilarious running gag in which characters can't quite break themselves of their routines, even as the world gets ready to crumble around them. There's comfort in the familiar, and it's all too easy to confuse that comfort with contentment, or, worse, with happiness. Thus, the tragic beauty of the bond that develops between Penny and Dodge is directly tied to the visual mismatch of Knightley and Carell, because without a catastrophe forcing them together they'd have never moved beyond casual pleasantries.
Where things end for Penny and Dodge is for you to discover. (Normally, I'd just say "spoiler warning" and write as if you've seen this movie, but based on the box office numbers, which confirm the outward awkwardness of the Knightley-Carell pairing, it's a safe guess you haven't.) Still, it isn't too soon to give credit to writer/director Lorene Scafaria for keeping me mostly in doubt. Oh, sure, you may guess how this whole thing ends; you've seen enough movies to know that there aren't even a handful of options. But the thrill of Seeking isn't in the not knowing. It's in the enjoyment of a credible alternative; there's romance here if Dodge and Penny find one another or merely help each other find someone(s) else. Seeking approaches love in its purest form: not as a possession for selfish fulfillment but as a resource that can be drawn upon to fulfill someone else's needs. In these increasingly self-absorbed times, Scafaria seems to be asking: do we need to face utter disaster to do what's right?
In that respect, Seeking is something of a dare, both in its themes and its lightheartedness. I saw the movie roughly 24 hours into a storm-induced state of emergency that had much of the Washington, DC, area (including me) without power and seeking refuge in the few places that still had juice (and therefore air conditioning). That made for the perfect real-life backdrop for this priority-check fantasy - allowing me to connect with Scafaria's film quickly and completely despite an uneven middle portion that often feels more like a grab bag of comic roadtrip-movie concepts rather than a collection of fully conceived scenes. But as often as I found myself connecting the onscreen panic with the comparatively minor catastrophe unfolding in my own community, Seeking also had me thinking back to Joe Posnanski's marvelous response to the now infamous Grand Forks Herald (rave) review of the Olive Garden back in March. At its essence, Scafaria's film is about the challenge of ignoring societal expectations and leading with one's heart, and I was delighted to find that the film practices as it preaches.
The Knightley-Carell pairing may not make sense on paper, but thankfully great cinema isn't bound by formula. If you can overcome the knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the starring duo on first sight and resist the temptation to evaluate the film according to its modest marketing campaign, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World proves to be unusually perceptive and honest. Much of the film's power comes directly from Carell, who is to openheartedness what Jennifer Love Hewitt is to open-chested sweaters. But don't overlook Knightley, who gives what might be the best performance of her career - warm, playful, and endearingly scattered. You're tempted to doubt me, sight unseen, I understand that. Your instincts will tell you that Knightley's best performance should come - must come - in a bigger movie, a darker movie, a more prestigious movie - or at least a movie in which she's paired with a similarly gorgeous leading man. But these are silly customs. And it shouldn't take the end of the world for us to correct them.