“Are you familiar with The Rapture?”
“The band or the Blondie song?”
This is the way the world ends in writer-director Todd Berger’s sophomore feature: Not with a bang but with a pop culture reference.
The beginning of the end finds Glenn (David Cross) and Tracy (Julia Stiles)—a could-be couple on their third date—pulling up in front of a suburban Los Angeles home. Even as Glenn loses points for cutting off Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” just before its bombastic climax, Berger is subtly signaling his own intentions to subvert expectations and comedically undercut any escalating drama at every available turn.
Ushered inside for his inaugural “couples brunch,” Glenn is acquainted with Tracy’s longtime friends. Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) are the straight-laced hosts whose relationship is teetering on the brink. Meanwhile, inked and uninhibited hipsters Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin Brennan) are riding out an all-night bender. And finally, there’s perpetually engaged Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace), her devotion to her charter school rivaled by his dedication to landing Uncanny X-Men #120 on eBay.
The decision by Berger and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber to shoot this Altman-lite sequence in one take pays dividends, effectively ratcheting up the social awkwardness. Furthermore, the established rapport between Miller, Brennan and Grace—they toiled in The Vacationeers comedy troupe with Berger—imbues them with a casual cliquishness that Glenn seems unlikely to infiltrate. With the newcomer’s anxiety escalating, a hazmat-suit-clad neighbor (Berger) pops by to alert them that dirty bombs have been detonated nearby. Everyone is to seal themselves indoors and await the apocalypse.
Well-versed in both conspiracy theories and end of days wisdom, Shane advises, “Things are going to degrade very quickly. The rules of society are going to break down.” And while Berger dutifully introduces a healthy dose of discord as infidelities are revealed and longstanding grievances are addressed, his script remains resolutely structured, ensuring that conflicts are addressed in an orderly fashion.
There’s a similar deliberateness to his characters, who are intended to represent particular types and attitudes, ensuring that every viewer has a surrogate. A consequence of characters who are designed rather than developed is that scenes occasionally feel like science experiments in which two disparate elements are combined in a controlled environment, e.g. “What if hedonistic Lexi and Buck tried to convince repressed Glenn to go out with a bang (of the coital variety)?”
While Berger’s approach to satire and social commentary is somewhat scattershot—nothing is deemed particularly worthy of taking dead aim at—his reference-heavy dialogue is sharp enough to allow each cast member to make an impression. After recently being relegated to playing ice queens in Silver Linings Playbook and Between Us, it’s heartening to see Stiles loosen up. One of the film’s comic highlights features her capping her list of greatest regrets with “never watching The Wire.”
Undeniably humorous, the line is also tinged with tragic undertones. In an increasingly dark and provocative third act, It’s a Disaster offers glimpses of how a particularly self-involved and media-saturated generation might approach their day of reckoning: with little more to offer up for judgement in terms of accomplishments than their impressively curated iTunes playlists and Netflix queues.
It’s notable that Berger’s players are predominantly thirty-somethings and uniformly childless. Traditionally in apocalyptic narratives, it’s the concern for future generations that drives individuals to persevere against all odds. However, the brunch attendees seemingly bear no responsibility for anyone other than themselves. Consequently, when they fall at the first hurdle, they’re more than content to curl up and wallow in self-pity.
Despite the verbal volleys rattling around the house, it’s what goes unsaid that resonates. Never once is the slightest concern expressed for anyone or anything—be it relative or pet—beyond the walls that confine them. To a number, they’re so self-absorbed that they fail to recognize that they have a full-fledged lunatic in their midst. And when this religious zealot is finally exposed and offers the group an alternative to simply meekly awaiting their doom, Berger mercilessly skewers their collective lack of resolve.
Ultimately displaying the conviction that none of his creations can muster, Berger fashions a unexpectedly bold finale that finds his characters condemned to a limbo of their own making.
Director: Todd Berger
Writer: Todd Berger
Starring: Rachel Boston, Kevin Brennan, David Cross, America Ferrera, Jeff Grace, Erinn Hayes, Blaise Miller, Julia Stiles
Release Date: Apr. 12, 2013