Couples’ brunch takes a funny turn for the worse in Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster

[Note: Due to popular demand, there are two more LA Film Festival screenings of It’s a Disaster at 2:30 and 9:40 on Saturday 6/23. Needless to say I recommend you hit one if you’re in town.]

Having made its world premiere before an enthusiastic full house at the LA Film Festival on Wednesday night, writer/director Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster turns out to be the apocalyptic relationship comedy that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World lies awake at night wishing it was. For starters, it’s flat out funny (and that’s probably the most important thing), but underneath the humor there is also a vein of honesty about how people are, what they want and how they relate to one another that sets it apart from other black comedies of its type. It never sells out its comic soul to land a point, but the two sensibilities fuse naturally into an uncommonly good indie comedy.

On their third date, Tracy (Julia Stiles) takes Glenn (David Cross) to a couples’ brunch at the home of one of her married friends. The other couples are Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace) who’ve been engaged for 6 years but haven’t married, wild card musicians Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin Brennan) who met at AA and married a few days later, and married couple Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) who have some big news to break to their friends when the brunch is over.

As the only outsider, this is a total minefield for Glenn who is a sweeter and more likable version of the clueless doofus types Cross plays so well. Glenn and Tracy have reached a certain point of familiarity in their relationship, but they’re still getting to know one another and getting the approval of the circle of friends is the next huge test. That’s enough story right there for plenty of comedy and/or drama, but this potential mini-disaster gets worse when unknown terrorists carry out an apparent nerve gas attack in major cities around the country and perhaps the world. With the power cut and cellular service interrupted, the four couples have no real idea of exactly what’s happening so they seal themselves inside the house in hope of maybe waiting the attack out. Et voila. We’ve got the time-honored horror tradition of isolating a group of individuals from the rest of the world and then sitting back and waiting for the fun to start. Think Night of the Living Dead or Assault on Precinct 13, but funny.

Berger is less interested in the whys and wherefores of the horror of a terrorist attack and more interested in using it as a grim backdrop to the often funny reactions among his talented cast. Everyone’s got a secret and they all react under pressure differently than you might expect. The attack itself is handled with a terrific dry black humor while the interpersonal stuff unfolds with the queasy familiarity of truth. Characters are exaggerated, but (unlike Seeking a Friend) their actions and reactions feel honest and real. Somehow too, Berger manages to take what you’d think would amount to a quick comedy sketch and fill it out into a feature length film that moves along briskly and entertainingly, which is more than you can say about a typical bit on Saturday Night Live.

Shot digitally for little money, It’s a Disaster is smoother and more assured and funnier than many comedies that cost a lot more. It makes the most of its budget with great comic writing and a terrific cast of actors who have a lot of chemistry together. Cross is great as always, but Kevin Brennan is especially a standout as the not-very-bright Buck. It’s also nice to see America Ferrera branching out a bit from her Ugly Betty role.

As of this writing, It’s a Disaster does not have a distributor, but hopefully that will change soon. It deserves to be seen. Even if it isn’t though, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Berger and his cast in the future.

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