Real time, one-setting films are a tricky feat to pull off, stumping even the most accomplished directors (have you seen “Carnage”?), but director Todd Berger does it with panache in his sophomore feature, a clever take on the apocalypse film, “It’s A Disaster.” Assembling a cast of eight actors in one house for a film that’s part relationship dramedy and part end-of-the-world movie, Berger keeps the setting fresh and the pace moving in a story that takes a humorous look at the problems, both epic and trivial, that threaten to ruin lives. Based on the rapturous response from packed houses at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, Berger and co. have succeeded in spades.
Tracy (Julia Stiles) and Glenn (David Cross) are on their third date, at a couples brunch with her friends, when not one, but two disasters strike the party. One, their hosts Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) are getting divorced. Two, a dirty bomb has just been detonated downtown. Both of these issues are predicated by communication mishaps and rumor, as it’s an accidental slip that reveals the divorce, and a wacky, Hazmat-suit-wearing neighbor (Berger, in a cameo) who brings news of the catastrophe. All of the characters react in their own bizarre ways, careening around the house and bouncing off of each other in different combinations. They all take on representations of the different stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and most of them cycle through the stages while dealing with issues both apocalyptic and intimate. Break ups and make ups and make outs and breakdowns ensue, all in absurd, yet realistic, fashion.
There’s a deft blend of drama laced into the comedy, and it’s interesting to see a comedian like Cross play the straight man for the majority of the movie against his counterparts who are spiraling out of control. He and Stiles are often the voices of (somewhat cold) reason, making the hard decisions and taking action while everyone else fights about a monkey-shaped shower radio or gets drunk on expensive scotch. Stiles takes on comedy with a deadpan touch, rewarded with some of the best lines, and even though she and Cross are the moral center for most of the film, their stalwart determinism and commitment to their beliefs slowly turns absurd, and they become the most humorously out of touch of the group.
Of the other couplings, Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace) are endearingly funny in their absolute inability to cope with the situation, Hedy deciding to go out in a blaze of pills, booze and junk food, and Shane revealing his true nature as a paranoid pop-culture freak who can’t really distinguish between reality and his own conspiracy theories. Miller and Hayes bring the heart to the story, as an estranged couple deciding what to do with their last hours on earth, while good-time gal Lexi (Rachel Boston) and her wild-man hubby Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) embrace their free spirit ways and live their last moments to the fullest.
As this group attempts to come to grips with everything that’s happening, Berger manages the tone of the film that intertwines drama with the slow burn black comedy absurdism of the situation within. But even in light of its satirical nature, it’s almost one of the most realistic depictions of what might happen during the apocalypse: are we all going to be donning “Mad Max”-style rags and shaving asymmetrical mohawks? No, we’ll probably be looking for the one radio that runs on batteries and having gentle meltdowns with the ones that just happen to be around. And, the film’s got one of the cleverest, and most satisfying ambiguous endings of any film all year. With all this talk of Rapture and Mayans, “It’s A Disaster” takes on a topic that’s on everyone’s minds, and twists it into a darkly hilarious dramedy with heart. [B+]