Perhaps the first great indie apocalypse potluck comedy, Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster aces many of the fundamentals bobbled by too many of the films with which it shares DNA. Like dopey ol’ Cloverfield, this opens with get-to-know-the-cast party scenes, in this case a sharply observed and performed couples’ brunch, with a smart script and a thirty-ish ensemble so adept at taxonomizing these longtime friends’ secret resentments, ritualized peculiarities, and variable degrees of adulthood that audiences will not find themselves impatient for the end times to hit. One guy (Jeff Grace) dashes about the house searching out the best wireless connection so that he can monitor an online comic-book auction; a woman (the funny Rachel Boston) shame-brags that she and her randy lover did coke all night, and then asks why she always makes the mistake of talking about such things to friends that include a doctor and a chemistry teacher.
Then, as in Husbands and Wives, one couple (Erinn Hayes and Blaise Miller) has bad news to tell the others, and we’re treated to bracing, intelligent comedy about the specific hardships of specific romances, both new and old. And then, like The Mist and its Book of Revelation-ilk, all the teensy oddities that we may or may not have picked up on—the power and Internet coming in and out, the occasional wailing siren—coalesce into a balls-out end-of-civilization scenario, one setting our four couples into a flurry of activity: sealing the doors, searching for a radio, breaking up, reconciling, dumping all the pills from the medicine cabinet into one bucket-sized cocktail of homemade ecstasy. They’re stranded together in the house together until God knows when—unless, of course, they’re already doomed just from breathing the air.
The story’s outline may be familiar, but its emphasis and quality are not. As the apocalypse wears on, the comic couples continue being comic couples, and—save a pair of flat scenes in the middle—the movie maintains its effervescence.
Julia Stiles, who has never been better, and David Cross lead the cast as the freshest couple: This brunch is only their third date, and he is being trotted out to her friends. Early on, the party splits between men and women—as these things do even among the hippest, most progressive crowds—and his attempts to fit in with these men and this “game” they want to watch make for warm, awkward comedy. Since he’s had Mr. Show, Arrested Development, and his daring stand-up career, it’s no revelation to see Cross at last given lines to speak in a movie that are the equal of his own skill and intelligence. (He plays normal, mostly, a smart but gently nervous guy that you’d be happy to see a friend wind up with.)
But Julia Stiles is something of a revelation, her performance a beginning-of-great things in a film about the end of them. Long the best things in bad movies, or just Jason Bourne’s plus-one, Stiles here is the best thing in a good movie. At first she plays excitable yet nervous, the woman introducing the man she likes to her friends; then, as the world crumbles, she crumbles, too, her gawky optimism giving way to an angry put-upon-ness: The end of the world is just the kind of annoying thing that happens in her life. She finds a surprise in almost every line she delivers, yet she always sounds like an actual, knowable person, even as she makes the hardest of survival choices.
Stiles and Cross make such a likable, believable couple, that, for the first time in many months, I actually found myself rooting for movie characters to find their way together. Whether they do or not, I’ll leave to you to discover, saying no more than this: It’s a Disaster is the rare film with a perfect—absolutely perfect!—ending. And we haven’t even gotten to America Ferrera (also never better) all hopped up on pills and itching to wrestle.