IT’S A DISASTER: Worth A Ticket – And They Feel Just (More Or Less) Fine
IT’S A DISASTER is the movie Seeking A Friend For the End of the World aspired, but failed, to be: a laugh-out-loud, throat-clutching comedy about catastrophe. Disaster, which premiered at this year’s LA Film Festival, doesn’t yet have a distribution deal, and while it’ll certainly never be a breakout mainstream hit, one assumes–hopes–it’ll at least be seen.
The set-up in writer/director Todd Berger’s script is simple. In a residential neighborhood off the downtown of an unnamed major city, 4 pairs get together for a regular “Couple’s Brunch.” They are the very organized hosts, Pete (Blaise Miller) and Emma (Erinn Hayes); their wilder, more bohemian friends Buck (Kevin Brennan) and Lexi (Rachel Boston); the (very) long engaged Shane (Jeff Grace) and Hedy (America Ferrera)–he’s a comic book nerd, she’s a rising science teacher and school administrator; and the single one, doctor Tracy (Julia Stiles) and her latest boyfriend Glenn (David Cross). (A 5th couple is expected, but they’re always late.) The group bickers, gossips to and about each other, shares in-jokes, presses each other’s buttons… and gradually starts to realize that something very wrong is going on outside. Cell phones, then land lines and electricity go dead, and finally some news breaks through–and it isn’t good. Essentially Disaster is the comedy version of Right At Your Door, a very serious 2006 indie with Mary McCormack and Rory Cochrane as an LA couple who endured an ordinary day that became a calamity. (Think of Disaster as the Dr. Strangelove to that movie’s Fail-Safe.)
As in Seeking A Friend, Disaster concerns itself with the different reactions people have to cataclysm: despair, hedonism, violence, denial, etc. In Disaster, though, those are rooted in well-drawn characters and sharp dialogue, instead of rom-com cliches. Berger keeps things nimble: even though virtually the entire film is confined to Pete and Emma’s house, it hops from room to room with one sub-group or another and never feels stagebound or claustrophobic.
In a movie like this, the cast is everything, and Disaster has a fine collection. Julia Stiles plays comedy too infrequently (as though in overreaction to her early success with 10 Things I Hate About You), and it’s good to see her toss off repartee with David Cross, a comic master who keeps his performance here naturalistic. Hayes and Miller have the most dramatic arc, and Ferrera the most exposition to deliver (she’s the one who understands the science), and they all preserve their characters’ drama while getting the available laughs. Grace, Boston and Brennan have the opposite challenge, playing the most overtly cartoonish characters, and they manage to find humanity within the gags.
There are missteps. A bit about an overseas call center feels too jokey, and some of the plotting is pat. More seriously, there’s a twist in the last few minutes about one of the characters that comes way out of left field–Berger ultimately finds the laughs in it, but it still feels contrived to push the movie toward an ending.
It’s A Disaster, happily, is nothing of the sort. On its own modest terms, it delivers exactly the mix of smart comedy and uneasy drama it intends, and it’s one of the brighter indies of the season. (Or whatever season it manages to find its way into distribution.)