"Hire An Assassin," reads a flyer on a wall in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a mordantly funny if ultimately uneven comedy-drama about a late-blooming romance. That unsavory but undeniably tempting offer isn't a major plot point, merely a small detail. If only there were more of them in this directorial debut from screenwriter Lorene Scafaria ("Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist").
Set three weeks before the apocalypse, "Seeking a Friend" stars Steve Carell as Dodge, a joyless insurance salesman recently deserted by his wife (Carell's real-life spouse, seen briefly). Around him, chaos reigns: Couple-friends are uncorking long-bottled fantasies (Robb Corddry and Patton Oswalt play newly minted debauchees) while at work there's sudden upward mobility as colleagues plummet to their deaths. More mundanely, "I think I'll finally take that pottery class," says Dodge's friend Karen (Melanie Lynskey).
This collapsing society is so inventive and colorful, and such ghastly fun, that you'll wish the narrative didn't have to start. But soon Dodge takes a road trip with his kooky, 28-year-old neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley). He's looking for an old flame, she needs a flight to England, but we know where this is going. Pit stops include the bunker of an enigmatic survivalist (Derek Luke) and the world's friendliest Friendly's, where the food and love are free (a terrific sequence that's almost a movie in itself).
Despite Scafaria's opening salvo of sharp observations and daringly grim jokes, "Seeking a Friend" eventually gives into false comfort. Carell's Dodge is a self-obsessed bummer, but Knightley's hip young Penny inexplicably falls for him anyway. (Her speech about old vinyl having deeper grooves doesn't wash; it's swiped from Paul Giamatti's Pinot monologue in "Sideways.") It's too bad the movie chose to go so gentle into that good night.
PLOT A button-down depressive meets a fun-loving eccentric on the eve of the apocalypse. RATING R (language, adult themes)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE A frustratingly uneven comedy-drama that starts out smart and incisive but ends up safe and cozy.