When Life Gives You Nerve Gas…


Pete and Emma Mandrake’s couples’ brunches seem like a disaster waiting to happen.  The men are largely disinterested, focused instead on the score of the UT game and bidding on a rare X-Men comic on eBay, and the women are subtly combative, with thinly veiled contempt for one another’s quirks.  Jenny and Gordon are always late.  Lexi is a vegan, which makes cooking difficult.  Shane and Hedy have been engaged for six years and still haven’t set a date — a touchy subject.  And Tracy, unable to find Mr. Right, brings a different guy every time, so the group chemistry is always up in the air.  On top of all this, Pete and Emma are about to break the news that after eight years of marriage, they are getting a divorce.  And there’s been a major biochemical attack on several major cities in the US, including theirs, making it very likely that they will all die in a matter of hours.

So begins writer/director Todd Berger’s second feature, the ensemble comedy It’s a Disaster, the latest in a series of apocalyptically themed films and certainly the most light-hearted.  (Although, that position is likely to be usurped when This is the End is released in June.)  To say that Berger’s film is about the apocalypse is somewhat misleading, however.  Much like Roman Polanski’s brilliant adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s Carnage, It’s a Disaster is really about (mis)communication and the breaking down of relationships when circumstance confines individuals, forcing them to confront themselves, their demons, and each other.

This is not to say that Berger is interested in any Lord of the Flies type critique of society and its mores; no, It’s a Disaster is a comedy through and through, but all good comedy lives and dies by the verisimilitude of its characters and their reactions to each other and to their context.  Berger’s efforts are greatly abetted by the casting of his Vacationeers cohorts Kevin Brennan, Jeff Grace, and Blaise Miller, whose history of working together gives them a natural, lived-in rapport that testifies to the camaraderie of these three drastically dissimilar characters.  As their significant others, television actresses Erinn Hayes, American Ferrera, and Rachel Boston all relish playing somewhat against type; and Julia Stiles, who had already worked with the Vacationeers on two very funny YouTube clips, is perfectly deadpan as the relative straightwoman of the group.  David Cross, who has made an art of playing befuddled, is a predictably strong addition to the already formidable cast, and for much of the film acts as the audience’s surrogate, struggling to stay abreast of all of the interpersonal drama to which he has just been introduced.

Once Berger establishes these eight individuals — which he does with admirable efficiency — it’s not long before things start going wrong and the film really hits its stride.  The phone, cable, and internet are all inexplicably out, which leads Pete (Miller) to assume Emma (Hayes) has neglected to pay the cable bill in lieu of her moving out of their house.  When he confronts her about it, Pete unintentionally lets the cat out of the bag about their impending divorce.  All their friends are shocked at the news, but their attentions are soon diverted when the power goes out and Pete and Emma’s neighbor Hal (Berger) shows up at the door in a HazMat suit and gas mask, asking to borrow D batteries for his emergency lights.  He explains that five or six dirty bombs were set off downtown, spreading VX gas throughout the city; before the cable cut out, there were reports of similar attacks in New York, Los Angeles, and Orlando.

To say any more about each character’s reaction or to describe in any more detail the mechanics of the film’s plot would diminish its impact.  Though no eighty minute comedy is ever going to be able to explore the individual-group dichotomy on the level of a Magnolia or a Short Cuts, It’s a Disaster is nonetheless the kind of film where tiny revelations of character and of relationship rather than elaborate set-pieces or plot constructions are the main source of dramatic and comedic momentum.  It’s in the little details, like Pete quietly asking Emma, “Is that my backpack?” when Shane loads up his survival supplies, that Berger is able to mine comedic gold, portraying the most likely reaction to the least likely situation.  (Indeed, there is only one scene, in which Hedy [Ferrera] and Buck [Brennan] discuss the the practical logistics of the afterlife, that feels amiss, as though it was written only to afford a punchline about robes and harps.)

To wit, Berger pretty much puts all his cards on the table when Hedy confides to Shane (Grace), “I think it’s only fair to tell you that this whole end of the world thing has really got me re-examining our relationship.”  It may seem self-evident to point out that dire circumstances lead to a clarity of thought and purpose, but this is underselling Berger’s script.  Rather than simply play the scenario for laughs, Berger manages to make a number of salient points not just about personal convictions and self delusion, but also about hope, will, and the necessity of open communication between partners.  Repeatedly throughout the film, the characters find themselves suffering due to withheld information; some is played for laughs (a pertinent detail Glenn [Cross] left out of his online dating profile), some is played for pathos (a tender moment between Pete and Emma), but most is pitched somewhere in between, with the arcs of all four relationships attesting to Berger’s main conceit of emotional honesty.

Towards the end of the film, Pete asks, “What if we survive?  I mean, is that completely out of the question here?  I just don’t want to lose hope.”  Though he’s referring explicitly to the nerve gas steadily making its way to their home, the implicit connotation is clearly his marriage to Emma.  The dissolution of a relationship — or of any strongly held personal conviction — may not be the literal end of the world, but it certainly can feel like it to the individual who resists the change; with It’s a Disaster, Berger has given us a very clever, very funny film, but he has also given us a welcome reminder that hope is impotent without will and that relationships grow exponentially to the individuals’ integrity towards one another.

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