David O. Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese himself with "American Hustle," a rollicking '70s crime romp that’s ridiculously entertaining in all the best possible ways.
Seven friends and one newcomer gather for a Sunday “couples brunch.” Because most of them have known one another for years, and because they are fairly petty and duplicitous, they embed covert barbs and hidden agendas in almost everything they say and do. Conversations appear familiar and convivial on the surface but carry a disconcerting undertone of cattiness that’s almost a private language.
Even before they sit down to a feast of mimosas, Tracy’s vegetable crockpot stew-that-started-out-as-soup and Emma’s vegan quiche (Lexi’s new trendy thing is not eating animal products, so everybody has to suffer), they are annoyed to find that the smartphone reception in the neighborhood is spotty and the cable is out. Then the electricity goes off. A neighbor in a bright yellow hazmat suit stops by to borrow some D batteries and informs them that several dirty bombs have been detonated a few miles away, in downtown Los Angeles. Hedy, the scientist in the group, estimates they have about three hours before enduring slow, agonizing deaths by tasteless, odorless VX nerve gas. It’s the start of a really awkward afternoon.
“It’s a Disaster" is a comedy. The casting of David Cross (“Arrested Development,” “Mr. Show”) and several Second City Chicago alumni, should tip you off to that. But I’m not sure I’d describe the movie as a “black comedy,” although the specter of imminent annihilation is, I grant you, a little on the “dark” side. This is more like a comedy of manners — really bad manners. The humor is indirect and relatively low-key, like the random sirens outside that nobody pays any attention to. (Why would they? They’re just sirens. Only later do the insistent wails of emergency vehicles take on greater significance.)
The movie’s funniest touches are quiet flashes of character, expertly timed and nimbly played by a deft ensemble. “It’s a Disaster” is consistently funny, but you wince more often than you laugh out loud. It’s like a Christopher Guest improvisational farce with the volume turned down to 5.
Hosts Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) are preparing to drop their own relationship bombshell on their friends. Hedy (America Ferrera) and Shane (Jeff Grace) are stuck in a six-year engagement with no end in sight. Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) fancy themselves as free-spirited rebels (she plays the glockenspiel, man). Nervous Tracy (Julia Stiles) is introducing her friends to mild-mannered Glenn (Cross) on their third date.
The movie’s sense of humor is expressed in its opening credits, which appear over a slow reverse-zoom on a vintage black-and-white photograph of a tropical beach, with palm trees and a couple of rustic, thatched-roof shelters in the foreground. At some point you notice a huge column rising out of the water in the distance. Eventually you see that it’s topped by a mushroom cloud. It’s an image of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. That’s the way things detonate in “It’s a Disaster”: gradually building up to climactic revelations (like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and Ravel’s “Bolero” on the soundtrack), always teetering on the brink of … disaster.
The film’s premise appears to have been adapted from Luis Buñuel’s famous 1962 satire “The Exterminating Angel,” in which a group of aristocrats gather for dinner and then find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the dining room. “It’s a Disaster,” written and directed by Todd Berger, traps its privileged Angelenos in a handsomely remodeled California bungalow, the plausible rationale for their confinement being the presence of deadly nerve gas outside. The crows don’t seem to be bothered by it, but you know crows. Probably nothing can kill them.
I read somewhere (and sentences that begin like this one are the stuff of which awkward brunch conversations are made) that Berger’s comedy was rooted in the characters’ inappropriate reactions to their situations. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. What’s funny is that, apart from acknowledging the whole impending death thing, they do exactly what most people do all the time: They lapse into denial and retreat into the familiar patterns of behavior they’ve become accustomed to, as if stubbornly determined to act just like themselves even under the most extreme of circumstances. It’s easier to get outraged over some newly discovered relationship betrayal than it is to wrap your head around a possible alien invasion or nerve gas attack, which you can’t really do a whole lot about with a single roll of duct tape, anyway.
While it’s always bad form to give away a comedy’s jokes, in this case there isn’t much that anybody could give away because the best material isn’t dependent on punch lines. Julia Stiles and America Ferrera prove themselves adept comedic actors, and they’re in good company. While we know that David Cross is a genius of funny, it’s still amazing how much he can get out of an inconsequential throwaway line like, “Mmmm, good carrots.”
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