For all his success as a stand-up comic, as one half of the brilliant HBO sketch comedy Mr. Show With Bob & David and as the hapless Tobias on Arrested Development, David Cross has struggled to find his footing in the movies, remaining relegated mainly to forgettable character roles. (The controversy within the comedy world over his mercenary appearances in the Chipmunks movies has overshadowed the rest of his long cinematic resume.)
And Cross may not earn the broad recognition he deserves for his performance in It’s a Disaster, a droll apocalypse comedy of exceedingly modest scale and even more modest commercial appeal. But it’s still a master class in how to play the straight man right: As madness and chaos swirl around him at increasing speed, Cross’s Glen Randolph stands firmly in the center, alternately flummoxed and serene, getting all the big laughs.
Writer-director Todd Berger, making his second feature, strands Cross at a “couples brunch” that’s already poisonous well before the threat of actual toxic gas seeps in. On the car ride over, Cross’ put-upon Glen has already (if inadvertently) caused friction with his high-strung date Tracy (Julia Stiles), a doctor with a history of bad relationships.
And once they’ve arrived, it soon becomes clear that Glen has walked into a hornet’s nest: The hosts, Pete (Blaise Miller) and Emma (Erinn Hayes), are the most functional couple of the three in Tracy’s clique — and they’re about to announce their divorce.
Shane (Jeff Grace) and Hedy (America Ferrera) have been engaged for five years and counting, and that’s a sensitive subject. And the happiest partners, Buck (Kevin Brennan) and Lexi (Rachel Boston), credit their success to an open relationship.
In the early going, It’s a Disaster has the snap of a witty social commentary, like something Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale) might have done on the cheap earlier in his career. Berger is a strong, crisp writer who establishes these characters and their tribal dynamic without breaking much of a sweat.
But then the film takes a nasty little turn when word of dirty bombs detonated nearby — and in cities across the United States — has the assembled malcontents believing they’ve only got a few hours before the radiation kills them. As the double-whammy title suggests, it was a disaster before the bombs hit, and it’s a whole other kind of a disaster now.
As in last year’s uneven dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the imminent apocalypse inspires people to behave in radically different ways: Buck and Lexi are inclined toward plane-going-down sex, Pete and Emma consider reconciliation, Hedy homebrews her own Ecstasy, Shane frets about the rogue nation responsible for the attack — and poor Glenn and Tracy, just on their third date, are still in the getting-to-know-you phase. There’s good reason for all of them to behave the way they do, and Berger delights in bouncing their neuroses off one another like players in a lively stage farce.
It’s a Disaster doesn’t end gracefully; a late-breaking twist makes sense only as a means to wind this zany scenario down without its turning into The Road. But for most of the way, it’s clever and smartly proportioned, with the action confined to one well-exploited location and gags about love, the curdling of long-term friendships and petty social mores popping off everywhere.
The best — and worst — that could be said of the film is that it doesn’t need that looming apocalypse. These characters are detonating plenty of dirty bombs on their own.