The apocalypse is in the air these days. Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster is the first of four end-of-the-world comedies set for release this year—the others being May’s Rapture-Palooza, June’s This Is the End, and August’s The World’s End—and it sets the bar very high for those to come. A character study of eight self-centered friends who congregate for brunch, soon discover their cell phones, Internet, and TV are dead, then learn that they’re in the middle of World War III, It’s a Disaster starts off threatening to be an insufferable exercise in hipsterism.
Emma and Pete’s marriage is on the rocks—they’re hosting the brunch so as to announce their divorce—because Emma (Erinn Hayes) slept with Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) and Pete (Blaise Miller) slept with Lexi (Rachel Boston). Yes, Buck and Lexi are a couple too, and they are basically closeted swingers. All seem like clichés: Emma is an uptight suburbanite with hair carefully parted, red lipstick strategically applied, and pearls lovingly draped. Pete is a classic yuppie bordering on a midlife crisis. Buck is a stoner washout with a Hulk Hogan mustache. Lexi is a free-spirited glockenspiel player who’s proud of the fact that she and Buck consummated their marriage in the bathroom of a TGI Fridays.
As for the rest of the brunch attendees, Emma and Pete’s doctor friend Tracy (Julia Stiles) is a mess of neuroses, maybe because she exclusively dates crazy men, or because none of her friends believe that her boyfriends have been crazy. Her new bf, Glen (David Cross, in full Tobias Fünke mode), seems more promising: he’s a fourth-grade history teacher, and the only crazy thing about him is that he’s okay with shutting off the 1812 Overture right before its famous climax. At least he’s not like Shane (Jeff Grace), Hedy’s (America Ferrera) long-term fiancé, who shuns human interaction at the brunch in favor of obsessively bidding online on a rare Alpha Flight comic book.
So yeah, all those characters sound like clichés. On paper they most definitely are. But when brought to life by this talented ensemble, they’re anything but. And once it becomes clear that their lives as they’ve known them are over — an unknown attacker drops dirty bombs and nerve gas on New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, and multiple other cities — then it becomes really interesting. Especially once they realize that the nerve gas will very shortly seep into Emma and Pete’s house and kill them all. It’s like Portlandia meets Melancholia, and it’s fascinating to see how each of the characters orients himself or herself toward the prospect of imminent death.
Worry wort comic-book freak Shane leads the charge to tape up the doors and windows and try to find some way to survive, while endlessly speculating over who attacked them — the enemy couldn’t have been from this world, right? — and planning to deal with the post-apocalyptic motorcycle gangs they’ll surely face if they live. His completely neglected fiancée Hedy, a chemistry teacher, goes into a negative panic and starts making home-cooked Ecstasy to cope. Tracy sets up one of the best jokes of the movie by lamenting all the things she never did in her life: she never went to Europe, never went to the ballet, never fell in love, never watched The Wire. The response of Glen? “All of those things are overrated…except for The Wire.” Oh, and as for Cross’s Glen? Well, you’ll have to witness his unique solution for dealing with Armageddon yourself.
It’s a tricky thing to mine humor from a feel-bad situation as thoroughly awful as this — Berger even shoots his movie like an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama — but whereas this summer’s all-star comic extravaganza This Is the End appears to strive for raunchy belly laughs, It’s a Disaster settles for a general mood of wry amusement as its characters ponder questions of their own mortality that they’ve probably never pondered before…and maybe still aren’t. Two of the couples at least, Emma and Pete and Buck and Lexi, are so self-absorbed that even the end of the world can’t make them look beyond themselves: Emma and Pete are still squabbling with each other over past infidelities, and Buck and Lexi can’t overcome their “party on!” attitude toward life to appreciate the gravity of their situation. When Lexi asks Buck if he thinks there’s a band in heaven they’ll get to join once they pass through the pearly gates, Buck says, “I know there is, and we’re going to be a part of it. ‘Cause guess what they need? A glockenspielist.”
For his film Sans Soleil Chris Marker wrote, “I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me.” He has a kindred spirit in Berger, who seems amused and even a little charmed by humanity’s boundless penchant for the mundane. Berger doesn’t place himself above his characters, which makes it all the easier to imply the question: what would you do if you knew you only had hours to live? Would you suddenly experience life as exceptionally heightened and sensually gratifying? Or would nothing really change? It’s fitting that It’s a Disaster should be released the same weekend as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film that insists upon finding holiness and serene beauty in every single shot — and by extension life itself. It’s a Disaster recognizes how much of the human experience takes place in the realm of the banal, and just how okay that is.