Film Review: It's a Disaster

The end of the world seems like not such a bad thing in Todd Berger’s gleefully acidic satire about an awkward brunch that turns into a countdown to actual disaster.

The current vogue for apocalypse stories gets a refreshing redo in Todd Berger’s nimble comedy about a miserable brunch that turns only mildly more sour after the realization that everyone is just hours away from death. The lack of both zombies and stars, not to mention the inside-out mockery of genre tropes, will keep wider audiences at a distance. But strong word of mouth could result in a small cult hit, at least among those who don’t mind a film whose attitude toward its doomed characters is simple and damning: Good riddance.

The setting for It’s a Disaster is one of those upscale suburbs where the lawns are manicured, the smiles are icicle-cold, and the prevailing mood is one of desperately trying not to be seen trying. Up to one of the houses marches Tracy (Julia Stiles, drawn tight as a bowstring) and her new-ish boyfriend Glenn (David Cross). She can’t stop warning of the problems sure to follow at this “couples brunch” with her nearest and dearest friends, which confuses him. From the second the door opens, though, her nervousness becomes clear: Her friends are despicable.

While Glenn, a shy teacher who seems to be the only guest who is not completely hateful, starts to realize that he’s certain to die a slow and agonizing social death, Berger sketches out the rest of Tracy’s friends. It’s an incestuous bunch, with hidden agendas and poorly disguised agendas proliferating like weeds. There’s the loosely amoral drug couple, the borderline autistic guy who can’t get off his phone long enough to converse (he’s got an eBay auction going), the wannabe alpha male, and the territorial ice princess. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own resentments (“Lexy’s gone vegan so everyone has to suffer”) that by the time they understand why the phone and power went out, they can still barely grasp the reality of the situation.

After a next-door neighbor in a hazmat suit (played with dry passive-aggressiveness by writer-director Berger) informs the gang that a batch of dirty bombs have gone off downtown and that they’d better seal up the doors and windows, the brunchers seem more interested in arguing over the correct pronunciation of “duct tape” than actually using it. As the bad news proliferates and the walls close in, the satire gets funnier and darker at the same time. Hedy (America Ferrera), the group’s one scientist who is the first to realize just how doomed they are, starts ticking off her checklist of why-not behavior, swiftly escalating from dessert-binging to meth-cooking. Meanwhile, the party’s Dwight Schrute character, Shane (Jeff Grace), can’t stop cycling through the fanboy scenarios in his head. (Is it the North Koreans? How will I get my hands on a shotgun and start fighting for survival, Walking Dead-style?)

Like Benjamin Dickinson’s underseen hipsters-in-danger analogy First Winter, Berger takes the apocalypse as an excuse to deliver some stinging social observations, but wraps it up in a loonier package. The mood is both acutely observed enough to feel true and buffoonish enough to deliver laughs. His ensemble cast takes to their roles with a crisp sense of deadpan timing (particularly necessary for lines like “If this is going to be my last drink on Earth, I’d rather it not be a merlot”). The end result might be more late-night improv comedy theatre than Buñuel, but the satire no less effective.