"It's a Disaster" is something you title your film only if you have a lot of faith in the project. The pun, for a critic disposed to go negative, is almost pathetically easy. Fortunately for writer/director Todd Berger, such confidence is well deserved. "It's a Disaster" is hilarious.
The indie crowd-pleaser imagines a "couples brunch" among eight friends, but from the opening moments — building to its rousing crescendo, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" plays over the still image of a mushroom cloud rising from the sea — it's clear that this will be no comedy of manners. As the world beyond unravels in a series of massive terrorist attacks, deadly VX nerve gas swirling just beyond the duct-taped door, the ensemble runs through the stages of grief as Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers might have done: resigned to absurdity.
If the conceit sounds a little dour, even insensitive, trust that Berger and the cast pull off their trick with aplomb. Indeed, it's only when death comes knocking that the movie really hits its stride. Part disaster-movie parody, part romantic comedy, part Altmanesque free-for-all, "It's a Disaster" is, if not quite a disaster, a bit of a mess: in the early going, its earnest neuroticism and testy relationships reminded me of Allen's "Husbands and Wives," without the humor or formal daring.
With the premise clicking into full gear, though, the film loosens up, and Berger's sharp comic ear shines. (After seeing "It's a Disaster," you'll never be late for brunch again.) In the end, it doesn't matter that the film's more serious moments, mercifully brief, feel heavy, even precious. The jokes land, and they land hard. Julia Stiles gets the best of them — "I've never even watched 'The Wire'!" she laments about her suddenly attenuated life — and nails every last one with relish; Jeff Grace ably carries the parody as a twitchy fearmonger who can't seem to decide whether it's aliens or North Koreans invading.
I'll cop to being doubtful at first, but "It's a Disaster" found its footing and won me over, maybe because the laugh lines felt right for just about any brunch I've ever attended, end of the world or not. As Pete (Blaise Miller) tells Glenn (David Cross) early on, "The conversation is real, Glenn. The problem is hypothetical."
The same can't be said of "Supporting Characters," director Daniel Schechter's warm, perceptive comedy about two New York film editors (Alex Karpovsky and Tarik Lowe) struggling to arrive at a shapely cut of their latest project — and of their messy love lives. Like the HBO series "Girls," with which it shares a few cast members (Karpovsky and, in a small role, Lena Dunham) and its tonal register, "Supporting Characters" is adamantly realist. It doesn't go for a series of gags so much as rifle through its characters' psyches, hitting on the ludicrous details of being young.
That's not to say the film doesn't have some genuine one-liners. When the film-within-a-film's director (Kevin Corrigan), in the midst of a frustrating dinner meeting about the poor results of a test screening, asks the waiter whether he's a "quirky" waiter or a "depressed" waiter, it's practically impossible, if you've ever cringed at a flat character in a Hollywood throwaway, not to laugh. But that sort of humor is the exception, not the rule — rather, it's crying over a promotion or chattering about Mom's pot habit, the lived-in, relatable comedy with which we pass our days when the world isn't coming to an end.
This is, perhaps, the harder feat. You won't be quoting many of the jokes from "Supporting Characters" at the water cooler on Monday, but if you're anything like me you'll be telling people to see it, to prepare to be charmed. Even Karpovsky, who wields his deadpan delivery like a shiv, lends his fine lead performance a gentle, easy quality that blurs the line between comedy and drama until it's difficult to tell which is which.
Indeed, in another allusion to Woody Allen — this time "The Purple Rose of Cairo," in which Mia Farrow falls in love with the star of the Hollywood picture on at the local theatre — Karpovsky points to the movie's underlying sweetness. He's taken a similar liking to the star of the movie he's editing, just by watching her on a loop. "You feel like you have this deep, intimate knowledge of these actors who you've never met before," he says, and I couldn't help but nod: I felt the same way about "Supporting Characters," as though I'd known these people in real life.
"It's a Disaster," distributed by Oscilloscope, is planned for theatrical release in early 2013. "Supporting Characters" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and recently screened at the New Orleans Film Festival.