You gotta hate this when it happens: Here you are hosting one of your Sunday brunches for couples, things are already edgy due to a certain amount of sexual shenanigans among those couples and then World War III breaks out.
“It’s a Disaster” is pitch-perfect black comedy, catching just the right tone of people blowing small things out of proportion when a really big thing, like Armageddon, is happening.
I don’t know what’s in the public drinking water these days but this is the second Armageddon comedy to play at the LA Film Fest although unlike “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” this is a small acquisition title that is much funnier and better organized for comedy than its studio predecessor. If nothing else, dark humor about doomsday has returned after an understandable break following 9/11.
Writer-director Todd Berger brings together eight characters in a West Adams home for what starts off as an innocuous although by no means innocent Sunday brunch involving close friends. Close friends, mind you, not good friends.
All are couples except for Tracy (Julia Stiles), who brings along her new boyfriend Glenn (David Cross). The hosts, Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller), plan to spring their decision to divorce on everyone on this day — only after the meal.
A swinging couple of Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) is more deeply involved in this break-up than it would first appear. Meanwhile Shane (Jeff Grace) is totally wrapped up in a comic-book online auction to the annoyance of his significant other, Hedy (America Ferrera), who is currently in the sixth year of her engagement to him.
Secret whisperings and sharp looks exchanged between couples ensue only to be interrupted by the arrival of a neighbor in a HazMat suit (this would be the director himself) with the news that several dirty bombs have gone off in downtown L.A. All electricity, Internet connectivity and phone service have been cut. The couples are to seal the house immediately with duck tape in the remote chance they might actually survive the drifting clouds of chemical death.
They scramble to find duck tape — seriously mispronounced by Buck — batteries, a flashlight or a radio but come up mostly empty. They do find a perfectly nice bowling ball, however.
Shane, a sci-fi nut, is prepared mentally though. He’s seen this scenario in countless movies and comics, but he keeps wondering whether the enemy is North Korean, Iranian or from deep space and whether those helicopters overhead are “there’s or ours.”
The comic tone stays consistently marvelous throughout the close-quarters in-fighting. Couples reminiscence about the past, quarrel, make-up and sometimes even acknowledge the errors of their ways. The stress serves to underscore obsessions, exaggerate petty hurts, take personal pains out on others and turn their thoughts to heavy drinking and drug-taking. There is also the best line about the wine varietal Merlot since the movie “Sideways.”
The film not only spoofs disaster films but lovingly catches the zeitgeist of our current suburban social attitudes and mores. The director and some of the actors belong to a comedy group called the Vacationeers, which undoubtedly helped to make the comic ensemble play so efficiently.
There is in much of the byplay among characters a kind of denial that any of this is really happening. So the dialogue comes out “unreal,” which is to say it doesn’t fit the circumstances. And thereby lies the humor.
The film isn’t gagged-up though. Whether through improvisation or tight writing, there’s a thoroughly human ebb and flow flow within the comic movement that goes up and down in the two-story house, its garage and basement, I’m tempted to call the movie Altmanesque in the cross-purposed actions and startling confrontations that lay siege to the clueless couples.
It doesn’t possess the seemingly random jam of spoken words found in the best Robert Altman movies — it feels too planned out for that — but the shifts in moods are smartly done and the characters are all too real. You smile with each well-delivered line and glory in an ensemble hitting all the marks.
Another thing, at least for me: The entire movie was shot on my block in West Adams last summer. There is something really weird about seeing the end of the world happening three doors away. Very weird.
Opens: April 12, 2013
Production companies: Vacationeer Productions in association with Cactus Three, Gordon Bijelonica/Datari Turner Films and Tip-Top Prods.
Cast: Julia Styles, David Cross, America Ferrera, Erinn Hayes, Jeff Grace, Rachel Boston, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller, Laura Adkins, Rob McGillivray, Jesse Draper
Director/screenwriter: Todd Berger
Producers: Kevin M Brennan, Jeff Grace, Gordon Dijelonic, Datari Turner
Executive producers: Brett D. Thompson, Eric Sherman, Robert P. Gosling, Krysanne Katsoolin, Mark Korshak, Alison Lee, John Margetis, Rob McGillivray, Caroline Stevens
Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber
Production designer: Peter K. Benson
Costume designer: Karen Mann
Editor: Franklin Peterson
No rating, 88 minutes