Any filmmaker looking to create a couples-driven comedy ensemble should consider the perils that would make a saner person rethink the attempt. You have to develop six to eight characters, have their interplay seem familiar and unforced, and have the right actors across the board get the job done. And where the hell do you put them all? Hell, even the sloppy Couples Retreat knew well enough to shoot in Bora Bora. All warnings considered, then, credit writer-director Todd Berger for primarily getting the couples dynamic right with the dark It’s a Disaster. His cast hits the right notes, his dialogue doesn’t try too hard, and his location is both funny and economical: A hip suburban house where Berger’s four couples are stuck at a brunch they can’t leave.
You foreign film fans might think we’re in Luis Buñuel territory here, but these guests aren’t struck by some indefinable urge a la Exterminating Angel. They’re staying indoors thanks to a chemical bomb attack that’s taken place nearby — as repeatedly evidenced by the two latecomers who lay dead at the front door. Obviously, taking an afternoon constitutional would surely mean trouble.
With this angle, Berger forces his characters into a comically tense, insular world, doing so with a surprisingly entertaining collection of problems, revelations and chit-chat. The focal couple is played by Julia Stiles and David Cross; she’s a snippy long-time member of the group, he’s the accommodating new boyfriend. Their awkward friction is effective, the actors nailing two generally decent people seeing if they can make a newish relationship work.
The rest of the brunch bunch is on that goofy precipice of young-adult carelessness and grown-up maturity, and none is making the transition particularly well. Berger makes sure his characters have smarts, even if they don’t act that way. It’s like they’re playing make-believe by organizing these Sunday meals together — brunch being clearly a lesser commitment than the exalted dinner party — but they still want to gossip and act like kids. This may sound more like an insightful, late coming-of-age tale than a comedy, but there’s a natural, well-timed tone to it all that lets the funny stuff come through.
Sure, there’s the expected guy talk and unexpected scenarios (Cross’s straight-laced Glenn is approached for a threesome, in a sequence more slapstick than sultry), but when the characters face their impending death head-on, Berger’s script surfaces the darkness it needs. When the blacker humor hits its stride, America Ferrera shines, playing a snappy scientist who’s ready to end her stagnant relationship (and life) with a little concoction that ain’t no mimosa.
Berger, who co-stars briefly in a very funny sequence as an uninvited neighbor, writes with a wry rhythm that his cast eagerly controls. When the script experiences a weaker or slower spot, the action moves along at a welcome clip, admirable considering the film’s constrained spaces. (Hey, the guy even uses the garage and the basement well.)
The apocalyptic setting of It’s a Disaster may repeatedly remind indie fans of the overlooked drama Right at Your Door, in which a couple suffers through a chemical attack with one person locked in the house and the other locked out. But then someone here starts talking about quiche or boyfriends and the parallels stop there. Whew.
DVD special features include a feature length commentary and some behind-the-scenes footage.