A toxic device detonated in downtown Los Angeles ruins an otherwise routine couples’ brunch in the slow-to-start, fun-to-finish “It’s a Disaster,” a smart, character-driven chamber play in which the cataclysmic offscreen event escalates the tensions between four already testy pairs. Premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival alongside the similarly themed “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer-director Todd Berger’s second feature boasts a strong enough script and cast to attract modest indie distribution, marking a solid resume-builder for all involved.
Pete (Blaise Miller) and Emma (Erinn Hayes) have been hosting Sunday brunch with their closest friends forever, but this weekend, they’re planning to drop a bomb on the group: After years of marriage, the seemingly perfect couple is splitting up. The news would no doubt dominate the gang’s weekly reunion if someone else — maybe terrorists, maybe aliens — hadn’t dropped a real bomb a few miles away.
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A nerve-gas cloud is slowly spreading toward them, and audiences have reason to be grateful, since it radically shifts the focus away from the superficial small-talk of the overlong first act. If such an incident can have a silver lining, it’s how radically the offscreen attack improves the drama of an otherwise insufferable get-together. Once the guests figure out the explanation for all the sirens and power outages, Emma’s vegan quiche suddenly doesn’t seem so important.
Since most of the brunch-goers have known each other for years, Berger introduces a well-meaning newcomer to serve as audience surrogate: David Cross, still in daffy “Arrested Development” mode, plays Glenn, who arrives with Tracy (Julia Stiles), the one gal in the group who can’t seem to hold a boyfriend. By contrast, Buck (Kevin Brennan) and Lexi (Rachel Boston) are frisky, while Shane (Jeff Grace) and Hedy (America Ferrera) have been engaged longer than many marriages last.
As for Tracy, sooner or later, all her boyfriends turn out to be crazy, which must explain why she’s chosen someone as safe as Glenn. Cross is ready-built for the kind of awkward comedy that ensues whenever he tries to connect with such a close-knit clique, as when the poor outsider is propositioned by a couple looking for one last three-way.
Considering how shrill and obnoxious everyone seems when Glenn and Tracy come onto the scene, it’s uncanny how Berger manages to win over the audience. Still, by the film’s hilariously hopeless ending, many will be feeling a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome, having been captivated in these desperate final hours by such a colorful group of clearly delineated characters.
Part of the fun is watching how such extreme circumstances change the various individuals’ personalities. Ferrera goes into shock, and Stiles gets pushed aside somewhat because Cross is needed to serve as a go-between with all the others. But Berger’s script does a fine job of giving each of the characters a reasonably juicy reaction to both the situation and the various unresolved issues in their relationships.
The writer-director, who makes a cameo as a nutty neighbor, doesn’t indulge any especially wild or creative choices behind the camera. Rather, he shrewdly sticks to a screenplay dense with clever jokes and punchy conversation, but that’s more than enough to carry the concept.
Whether serious (“Testament”) or satiric (“Zombieland”), any film concerned with the fallout of a major disaster depends heavily on character, and this is where all the attention paid to building a believable ensemble pays off. Auds may not care about this gang when the party starts, but once the dust settles, you’ve gotta admit, they made for pretty good company.