In the run-up to a summer featuring such highly hyped catastrophe comedies as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This Is the End and Edgar Wright's The World's End, writer/director Todd Berger's It's a Disaster squeaks in like an M-80 amidst a barrage of ten-megaton nuclear bombs. Playing out like a comic inversion of Chris Gorak's unsettling 2005 thriller Right at Your Door, Berger's high-concept follow-up to his 2009 feature debut The Scenesters may not have the star power to rival its big-budget counterparts, but it does offer some sharp writing and a winning ensemble cast.
Tracy Scott (Julia Stiles) is ready to introduce her new boyfriend Glen (David Cross) to her best pals Hedy (America Ferrera), Emma (Erinn Hayes), and Lexi (Rachel Boston), and what better way to do it than gathering for a laid-back Sunday brunch? As the ladies and their significant others file in, it quickly becomes apparent that the chemistry is a bit off. And just when it seems like the situation couldn't get any more uncomfortable, the group learn that a series of dirty bombs have been set off downtown, and that a deadly cloud of VX nerve gas is blowing their way. Now, with their demise seemingly imminent, this bickering bunch must make peace with the fact that the worst party they've ever attended may also be their last.
Given budgetary limitations and a reliance on dialogue, indie comedy can be a tricky business by itself. Throw the apocalypse into the mix, and you're quite literally playing with fire. Fortunately, Berger seems to recognize the challenges and limitations on both fronts, smartly playing to his strengths behind the camera by keeping the setting contained to a single suburban house as he focuses on the chemistry of his characters. Moreover, by allowing the catastrophe unfolding outside to affect how the story of a failing marriage and its fallout unfolds inside, Berger gives the entire affair a satisfying, cohesive feel. Though it's obvious from the very moment Tracy and Glen arrive at the brunch that there's some serious dysfunction going on behind the scenes with these old friends, Berger takes his time revealing the root causes, casually allowing his characters' little quirks to bubble to the surface before dropping the big one at the end of the second act. With running gags involving Glen's perpetually awkward timing and Hedy's unexpected reaction to the troubling incident, this approach works particularly well, providing some of It's a Disaster's biggest laughs. Even so, none of this would have worked if we didn't believe the characters, and the rest of the cast perform admirably in making them three-dimensional (including Berger, whose brief cameo as the neighbor who breaks the news to the clueless crew is an early highlight).
Despite the strength of his writing and his cast, Berger still falters when it comes to the final act. In fairness, it's difficult to discern exactly where the story could have gone given the decision to keep it contained to the house. But after peaking with an admission that sends the story careening dangerously close to farce, the film never quite fully recovers, despite offering some humorous moments and a character revelation involving Glen that's sure to delight fans of Cross' particular brand of comedy. Given those shortcomings, in addition to an abrupt nonending that feels like a bit of a cheat, it's difficult to recommend It's a Disaster without reservations. If you're a fan of gallows humor who happens to be in a forgiving mood, however, there may be just enough here to have you giggling through Armageddon.