There seems to be more and more movies about the end of the world these days. Maybe it’s a reflection of how vulnerable people feel given the notable events of the 21st century: terrorist attacks, natural disasters, man-made ecological tragedies, extreme weather, financial collapses, political instability. Institutions crumble, old systems topple, the planet can crush us like bugs, but at least there’s some hope in the people close to you.
I think that idea of personal relationships weathering large-scale hardships is key. It might even explain why there have been a lot of “hanging out at the end of the world” movies alongside blockbuster apocalypse films.
In the dark comedy It’s a Disaster, a charming couples brunch with friends starts out on the wrong foot, but not because of bad manners or the sudden disclosure of true feelings. No, instead it all has to do with a massive terrorist attack on major cities all over the United States.
It’s a Disaster
Director: Todd Berger
Release Date: March 5, 2013 (VOD); April 12, 2013 (limited theatrical, additional cities in the coming weeks)
The idea of good things going bad is present at the very start of the film. During the opening credits, there’s a soothing image of a beach. As the camera zooms out, it reveals the looming mushroom cloud of an atom bomb going off in the water. It’s Bikini Atoll as a punchline and a bit of foreshadowing — the danger isn’t the immediate blast but the eventual fallout.
The terrorist threat of It’s a Disaster isn’t planes into buildings or explosives in crowded areas. Instead it’s dirty bombs spreading hazardous material through the air. The enemy has cut off communication: no cell service, no landlines, no internet. No electricity, even. The threat is invisible and unstoppable. The only choice is to hunker down and avoid the outside until the end comes or help arrives (if it even will). The set-up makes for close-quarters drama and awkward comedy, though it’s also a convenient way to keep costs and locations down on a micro-budget indie film. It’s a Disaster could easily be performed as a play.
As with any ensemble piece filled with eccentric characters, I watched It’s a Disaster wondering which person I was most like, and then worrying about what that said about me. We start the film with Tracy (Julia Stiles) and Glen (David Cross), who’ve only been dating a brief while. For Glen, this is a kind of trial by fire since everyone at the brunch knows Tracy already; for Tracy, she’s just hoping she’s with someone who isn’t nuts. The hosts of the brunch are Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller), who have a big announcement to make that no one knows about. Rounding out the group are Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace), a high school chemistry teacher and her geeky fiance, and the hippy-dippy duo of Lexi and Buck (Rachel Boston and Kevin Brennan).
In some ways the dirty bomb attack makes the brunch more tolerable. Emma and Pete intended to use the gathering to tell everyone that they’re getting a divorce. (Bad news needs to be broken over vegan stew and quiche, I guess.) Now with the terrorist attack, everyone can focus on things that matter, like not dying. The divorce brunch would have been amusing based on the cast and the situation, but adding immanent death to the mix turns this collection of neurotics into a cage full of frightened lab rats — feelings get heightened, desperation is enhanced, and maybe the humor is more effective because of it. If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny; if it destroys downtown LA, it’s funny again.
The laughs in It’s a Disaster come from watching everyone’s reactions to this dire situation. Some of them spring into action, others go catatonic, and some get incredibly paranoid. Lexi and Buck, however, continue to be infuriatingly chirpy, like it’s just rain outside rather than a potentially fatal attack. It was a little annoying at first, especially Lexi’s brand of devil-may-care, but it fits with their characters and actually reminded me of some people I know. About midway through the movie it became apparent that without Lexi and Buck, It’s a Disaster wouldn’t be able to walk that line between gallows humor and slapstick.
There aren’t any weak performances here, but a greater testament to the cast is that none of the performances dominate the others. They all play off each other in a way where the personalities are distinct and realized. Cross and Stiles are like the straight men of the movie — their drama is comparatively small, their personalities modulated — which makes them vessels for the audience’s experience of this group. I’ve never watched Ugly Betty, so can’t compare Ferrera’s performance to that, but it was amusing to see what a little bit of death can do to a straight-laced person with a vacant, pop-culture-obsessed partner like Shane. Hayes and Miller have to do most of the dramatic heavy-lifting since its their divorce that precedes the end of society, and they do it well.
Writer/director Todd Berger appears in the film as a next door neighbor in a Hazmat suit. He’s the person who lets the house know what’s going on outside of this little bubble — dirty bombs, infrastructure attacks, the scope of the damage. We only get two or three other indications of how bad the damage is later on in the film, and they’re both played for laughs. During Berger’s appearance, the most important thing to his character is that he wasn’t invited to the brunch.
This neurotic bit of personal offense is like an inverted riff on the the “hanging out at the end of the world” movie. The mantra of those films is that the big stuff gets destroyed but the little personal relationships survive. Here a social faux pas between acquaintances becomes worse than the end of the world. It’s a shattering betrayal. All the little offenses take on an apocalyptic character while the end of the world is just something going on outside.
And that might be another true and funny thing about It’s a Disaster, as if it’s painting another kind of apocalyptic portrait of the early 21st century: we often overmagnify the events of our daily lives and forget that there’s more going on outside ourselves. Divorce, misunderstandings, regrets, mistakes — they’re difficult situations and can change our lives, but they’re not the end of the world. Then again, maybe the end of the world isn’t so bad either if it puts all that in perspective. Pity that there isn’t much to do after that realization, though.