10 Years Ago, An Apocalyptic Comedy Predicted Lockdown Hostilities

If you or someone you know went squirrelly in 2020, this will look familiar.

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As an unprecedented global catastrophe unfolds around them, a group of friends react in mostly petty, self-centered ways. Unspoken tensions come to the surface in long-term romantic relationships. One friend fixates on self-preservation, taking stock of potential weapons and exit routes. Another denies that anything is happening at all, asserting that “just because the media reports something doesn’t make it true.” A doctor dismisses her potential first responder duties by explaining she’s not on call, while her teacher friend just shuts down completely. Together, it’s a darkly funny look at how humans can fold under pressure.

This may sound like a movie made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s a small-scale comedy released in theaters a decade ago. The disaster in It’s a Disaster is a dirty bomb attack on the United States by an unknown enemy, but writer-director Todd Berger cleverly anticipates many of the reactions Americans would have to the real-life disaster of 2020. His humor is brutal but empathetic, never turning its protagonists into caricatures. These may be terrible people, but their actions are relatable and sometimes even perversely noble.

It helps that Berger assembled a remarkably talented cast, with actors who can balance genuine emotion and deadpan humor. They’re a mix of recognizable veterans and some of Berger’s cohorts in comedy troupe The Vacationeers, and they blend seamlessly. Almost all of It’s a Disaster takes place inside the tasteful house owned by married couple Pete (Blaise Miller) and Emma (Erinn Hayes), who are holding one of their longstanding couples brunches, and even before the outside world starts collapsing there are plenty of forced smiles and tense pleasantries.

Tracy (Julia Stiles) gives her date, Glenn (David Cross), a lengthy rundown of off-limits topics as they walk to the front door, warning him away from potential conversational minefields. For much of the movie, outsider Glenn seems like the sanest person in the house, focused on practical solutions as the other characters get caught up in personal drama or make reckless decisions that could endanger everyone else. It’s easy to sympathize with his exasperation, even if most people would probably behave more like Tracy and her friends.

David Cross’ Glenn seems like the only character focused on practical solutions.


Those friends also include the long-engaged Shane (Jeff Grace) and Hedy (America Ferrera) and free-spirited married couple Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) and Lexi (Rachel Boston). They’re all so caught up in their passive-aggressive feuds that they barely notice the increasingly frequent sirens outside, and their first reaction when the power and phone reception go out is to blame each other. Comic book fan Shane is mainly upset that he can’t get online to complete his bid for a copy of the Uncanny X-Men issue featuring the first appearance of Alpha Flight.

Gradually, the characters realize that something may be seriously wrong, but it’s not until Pete and Emma’s neighbor Hal (Berger) shows up at the door in a hazmat suit that they understand the true gravity of the situation. Even as he’s warning them of the imminent danger from the dirty bombs, he manages to gripe about not being invited to brunch before he puts his gas mask back on and abandons them to fend for themselves. “You can’t just leave us here like this,” Emma protests. “Yeah, I can,” he says as he leaves.

Tracy fits in a lecture while sending tardy friends back out into the apocalypse.


The friends offer similarly harsh treatment to a perpetually tardy couple who arrive late for brunch, already sick from exposure to the chemicals the bombs have spread. As Tracy refuses to let them in, she reminds them they wouldn’t be in this dilemma if they would just show up to events on time. A later establishing shot that reveals their fate is one of the funniest moments in the movie for how offhandedly it treats such horrific consequences.

But Berger’s humor is rarely mean-spirited, and as the day wears on and the characters become more open and honest, there are moments of real heartbreak and anguish. Stiles is quietly affecting as Tracy sits listening to music and listing off all the things she’ll never get to do, and Ferrera projects a mix of anger and despair as Hedy faces up to the group’s dire fate. One of the long-term couples reconciles, while another breaks up, and both developments are meaningful and well-earned.

There’s a catharsis to the end-of-the-world dance party that brings everyone back together, although Berger closes the movie on a note of mordant humor befitting the cynical tone. No matter how reprehensibly these people behave, they’re always good for a laugh.

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