Editor's note: The following review originally ran during the L.A. Film Festival. "It's a Disaster" opens in limited theatrical release this Friday. It's also currently available on VOD platforms.
Character studies set during the advent of the apocalypse are so common these days they practically form their own genre, but "It's a Disaster" manages to stand out from the crowd by having as much fun as possible with the grim scenario. A largely uneven satire set entirely within the confines of a suburban home, "It's a Disaster" may have flowed better on the stage. However, writer-director Todd Berger, improving his technique with his second feature-length credit following "The Scenesters," combines enough energetic performances with charged wit to make this one doomsday comedy that earns the right to its familiar backdrop.
The movie begins rather clumsily as a relationship comedy that unfolds with little to amuse beyond the material for an average episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The newly dating Tracy (Julia Stiles) and Glenn (David Cross) arrive at the home of Tracy's married pals Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) for an awkward "couples brunch" to allow Glenn to meet Tracy's friends. These also include the eternally engaged Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace) as well as the pleasure-seeking polygamous couple Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin Brennan).
Berger's camera just observes as the group engages in neurotic gossip and small talk, unaware of the gradual accumulation of ominous events taking place outdoors. Tensions suddenly rise when it becomes clear that Emma and Pete are planning a divorce, but before they can brief their friends, they're forced to confront the larger issue of dirty bombs going off downtown. Dead bodies pile up outside, sirens roar in the distance and so on, but the real problems remain within the home.
In the ensuing conflicts that follow, the ensemble routinely bounces off each other to bicker about priorities, allegiances and other pithy issues while the sky slowly turns gray. Berger's screenplay touches on innumerable themes with the restlessness of an ADD comedy routine, although he hits more and more targets as he moves along: Adultery, religion, commitment and existential despair all come into play and get thoroughly ripped apart.
Set entirely within the confines of the home, "It's a Disaster" shifts between a variety of configurations that finds its characters forming allegiances and sharing secrets throughout the house before coming together for a hilarious dark punchline that calls to mind reports of the original pie fight Stanley Kubrick planned for the climax of "Dr. Strangelove." With its erratic pace and overly derivative character types, "It's a Disaster" comes nowhere near touching the satiric heights of Kubrick's movie, but it follows a similar trajectory on a more contained human scale rich with contemporary humor.
While Berger's script meanders at times and most of the gags induce chuckles rather than guffaws, the cast invests in the material to a degree that carries it through numerous rough patches. Ferrera, the medical specialist of the group, stands out for her amusing transition into its most dour member, as she accepts imminent death and starts binging on fast food and every drug within her reach. The always goofy David Cross, meanwhile, appears content to act in a movie of his own, routinely popping into a room at inopportune moments and steadily creeping everyone out. Stiles is characteristically restrained, but gets a fleeting chance to show off her nuttier side in the satisfying finale when everyone's agenda finally erupts.
Because it only cuts surface deep, "It's a Disaster" gets away with using its disposable science fiction backdrop in service of an effective message. "This whole end-of-the-world thing has really got me reexamining our relationship," one character says. In its relentless display of romantic dysfunction, "It's a Disaster" caustically asserts that even the most foolhardy relationships are prone to spontaneously erupt.
Criticwire grade: B