Generally, the term “disaster film” conjures up images of big-budget destruction, monuments falling into oceans, traffic jams trying to escape burning and exploding cities – your basic Roland Emmerich scenario. Of course, indie films like It’s a Disaster can’t really afford the kind of effects that characterize vapid blockbusters, but it makes up for it with something much better: a witty rapid-fire script and an ensemble of well-drawn (if recognizable) characters. It’s a disaster film in semantics only, really, as the disaster takes place off-screen, leaving us to watch the characters’ reactions to the knowledge of the disaster rather than the disaster itself. Frankly, it’s a good choice.
It’s Couples Brunch at Pete and Emma’s, a tradition that everyone comes to without really enjoying. Tracy (Julia Stiles) brings her new beau Glenn (David Cross) to meet the rest of the crew, who we get introduced to with along with him. Pete and Emma (Blaise Miller and Erinn Hayes) seem to have the perfect life and marriage, including the lovely little home they own, Buck and Lexi (Kevin Brennan and Rachel Boston) are unconventional and kind of manic but wildly happy with each other, and Hedy and Shane (America Ferrera and Jeff Grace) are a long-time couple who haven’t quite gotten around to getting married yet, a sore subject in some ways. For her part, Tracy is known for a long string of guys she’s dated, all of which have turned out to be crazy, and she’s hoping the seemingly grounded Glenn will be different. Behind the typical small talk and gossip, though, an undercurrent of suppressed relationship drama broils beneath the surface.
Not much time for that, though, as the lack of cell phone and TV reception soon turn out to be more than just spitefully unpaid bills, but a side effect of the dirty bomb attack hitting downtown Los Angeles. Unable to leave the house due to a fear of radiation, the eight people deal with the threat and eventually almost inevitable death in their own ways, and all the relationship issues that kind of slide by in the mundanity of day to day life come to the fore. This sounds as depressing as hell and slogging through relationship trauma has dragged down more indie films that I can name. Thankfully, that’s not the case here, as writer/director Todd Berger’s script is a joy from start to finish. The film remains primarily a dialogue-driven comedy that lets each character have their little backstory and arc, even the perpetually-late Jenny and Gordon, and the next-door neighbor Hal (a cameo from Berger).
The script is filled with little comedic jabs that anyone from LA will relate to instantly (and probably lots of other places, too), like Lexi pointing out that if she didn’t want to be left out, she wouldn’t have become vegan, or Tracy listing all the things she never got to do now that they might all die, including watching “The Wire.” These are people taken up with superficial things, there’s no doubt, as the stereotype of our city suggests (and isn’t far off from the truth), yet somehow between Berger and the actors, they all become people we care about, people we recognize are flawed, but so do they, and that’s one of the joys of watching the film unfold.
Berger’s previous film The Scenesters (my review) also took LA as its setting, with a meta-mystery story set among Silver Lake indie filmmakers, and it was an enjoyable look at some of the foibles of hipster/scenester culture, but It’s a Disaster ups the ante on almost every level. No longer an indie filmmaker with promise, Berger has realized that potential and made a thoroughly enjoyable comedy that skirts genre filmmaking in a very calculated but effective way. Mixing members of his cast from The Scenesters with more recognizable faces like Julia Stiles, David Cross, and America Ferrera worked perfectly, and hopefully gets him some higher-profile recognition for this film and more opportunities in the future, because with these two films, he’s already proven he’s got a command of dialogue, timing, and character interaction that the indie world definitely needs.
Writer/Director: Todd Berger
Starring: Julia Stiles, David Cross, America Ferrera, Rachel Boston, Erinn Hayes, Kevin Brennan, Jeff Grace, Blaise Miller, Todd Berger.
Running Time: 88 min.