Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster opens deceptively, with a black and white image of a beach — but as the credits roll, a slow pull out reveals the explosion of an A-bomb off in the distance. The film’s narrative uncoils in a similar fashion: Tracy (Julia Stiles) is bringing Glenn (David Cross), a possible new boyfriend, to what another character dubs “our famous ‘couples brunches.’” There, Glenn will meet four other couples, Tracy’s long-time friends; pleasantries will be exchanged and topics will be gingerly avoided, and the stage is set, it seems, for some good old-fashioned comedy of awkwardness. That’s before all the dirty bombs go off.
The reveal is rather ingenious. The dialogue has the eavesdropping air of an Altman film (with overlapping conversations, even), as friends new and old engage in chit-chat and small talk: jobs, exes, diets, and cell phone signals. The last topic becomes more important, as the group realizes no one has a signal (no matter the carrier!), nor are the TV or the landline working. The host accuses the hostess of not paying the bill, but it’s more dire than that: a neighbor arrives in a hazmat suit, informing the guests of the aforementioned dirty bombs. “What’s a dirty bomb, bro?” asks one, in disbelief. But it’s not a gag; a chemical weapon has been unleashed, and in a few hours, it will leak into the house and kill them all.
And there you have the setup for the darkest comedy in many a moon, in which writer/director Berger treads a very fine line between hilarity and panic. At its essence, this is a Romero-esque riff on the disaster movie, in which the budget is kept low by staying in one location and dealing with it on a personal level. Much of the humor (and make no mistake, there is a lot of it) comes from the expected but nonetheless inspired juxtaposition of extraordinary catastrophe and everyday, even petty response. (Sample line: “I think it’s only fair that this whole World War III thing has got me re-examining our relationship…”)
A litmus test for the film’s second half comes shortly after the hopelessness of the situation has set in, when that one couple shows up late, like they always do, and they are of course already infected, their skin gone white, their noses bleeding. Tracy, at the door and fully aware that letting them in means also admitting the airborne chemicals, takes the opportunity to point out that had they been on time for once, they’d be fine. “Every brunch, Jenny!” she chastises, impatiently.
If that sounds too dour for your taste, stay away; I couldn’t stop laughing, at that scene and at most of Stiles’s arid-dry line readings. She’s up to some interesting stuff here (it’s not terribly removed from the amusing impatience of her character in Silver Linings Playbook), and she and Cross are a good match, his barely sustained cheeriness and willful opacity leading to a character turn that shouldn’t work, but does. Other standouts in the ensemble include Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera (a comic dynamo as the solid, together friend who takes the opportunity of Armageddon to throw all caution to the wind) and Children’s Hospital’s Erinn Hayes (playing the type-A well, and then digging a little bit deeper, admirably).
As it enters its third act, It’s a Disaster sets up a bit of a conundrum for a conclusion: How do they end this? Will they go all the way with it? And do you want them to? Suffice it to say that they find a closing note that’s as weird and funny as the rest of the film, and then hold it, and then hold it a little longer. What an odd, funny, invigorating little movie.
It’s a Disaster opens tomorrow in limited release. It is currently available on demand.