' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...It’s a Disaster

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Some Drivel On...It’s a Disaster

“It’s a Disaster” (2012”) sort of suggests Jenny Lewis’s 2014 track “Aloha and the Three Johns”, in which the end of a relationship possibly portends the end of the world. Indeed, writer/director Todd Berger filters the beginnings and ends and rekindlings and holding fasts of four couples gathering in Austin for a dinner party when a few dirty bombs go off downtown. The odds-on advent of WWIII causes them to seal up the house, fortifying themselves inside, and fortifying just how sealed off they were from each other and the outside world anyway. It’s a solid-set up, loosely suggesting Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” as directed by Richard Linklater, or something. Then again, Berger fails to scrutinize his characters’ inherent archetypes like Linklater might and his aesthetic is more sitcom than Buñuel surrealism. (Comparing him to Buñuel might be unfair in the first place.) Still, “It’s a Disaster” works well enough on its own wavelength as a comedy of modern manners even if it never quite becomes the Quarantine Movie For Our Times, though maybe that’s just because the characters can’t use social media since the power is out.

As the movie opens, Tracy (Julia Stiles) is arriving to brunch with her new beau Glenn, played by David Cross with just the right amount of eager apprehension, trying to fit in without causing a fuss. His first conversation with the host, Pete (Blaise Miller), is typical of the movie’s dialogue. If Pete offers Glenn some scotch and asks him a question, it proves not in service of ingratiating the newbie but seeking ratification of a previously held viewpoint, correlating to his faltering marriage to Emma (Erinn Hayes). Pete is not interested in learning about Glenn so much as projecting onto Glenn, emblemizing everyone’s self-involvement blinding them to their personal problems and the much, much bigger one. Berger plants little seeds of the suddenly crumbling world outside, from spotty cellphone reception to a panicked jogger, none of which the characters discern. It takes Pete and Emma’s neighbor (Berger) turning up in a hazmat suit to say, hey, the world might be ending, exposition that still functions as a means to reveal character.

What transpires is the characters reverting to their worst behavior. Rather than unite as one in the face of this cataclysm, they splinter into small groups, often of two, sniping at others behind their back, or seeking out the one they’re sniping about to snipe to his/her face. This sort of psychology, alas, mostly sticks to the surface level, stranding several of the characters as mere caricatures. And though it makes sense that the characters remain rather oblivious to the looming apocalypse outside their door, it also means “It’s a Disaster” wastes an opportunity to utilize the looming apocalypse’s tension to see why these characters tick. The movie’s best moment is when the couple that’s always late finally shows up, noses bleeding, looking worse for wear because it is long after the dirty bombs go off, begging to be let in. It’s Tracy who refuses, played deftly by Stiles as someone responding both to the present and the characters’ pasts, a brittle evocation of how stress lays bare her natural state.

That, though, along with a recurring visual gag involving the late couple after they perish, is as dark as Berger ever gets. More about artfully blocking than inducing claustrophobia, Berger’s frames maintain a polite distance, keeping the whole situation on a simmer. That sort of tamps down America Ferrera’s ostensibly frantic energy as her character, chemistry teacher Hedy, just sort of checks out in the face of the world ending, changing into soft pants and drinking and trying drugs, but otherwise provides the film the feeling of an apocalyptic shrug more than the apocalypse. Berger conveys a shrug, too, in his frequent diffusing of payoffs, like Hedy’s fiancé, Shane (Jeff Grace), role playing as a take charge leader.

Berger saves his biggest payoff feint for the conclusion. It builds off the revelation that Glenn is a religious zealot, convinced the Rapture has commenced, worried his new sinful friends will be doomed to wander the Earth, determined to poison their drinks and save them the trouble. That this turn works is because of how Cross plays it, with nary a change in tone, the same guy, really, as he was before, just revealing one more detail about himself, turning it into a commentary on dating as much as the end times. And if the group at first doesn’t want to play along, they change their tune after Hedy explains in monotone yet excruciating detail the tortuous physical fallout they can expect from the dirty bombs, a neat moment in which science and religion unexpectedly come together. Whether they drink the poison or not, well, seven years later, I’ll still leave for you to discover, though I found the moment even more strangely moving than I did the first time I watched it, a halting expression of holding on to hope.

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