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Non-Review Review: The Stag

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

On the surface of it, The Stag feels like an Irish version of The Hangover; a “lads going wild before the wedding” comedy that thrives on men behaving badly and even features the bride’s brother as a reluctant invitee and breakout character. Of course, there are any number of differences – substituting the wilds of rural Ireland for the glitzy glamour of Vegas, the decision to make the groom a main character more than a plot device, the nature of the breakout character’s anti-social personality – but The Stag essentially takes a tried and true comedy template and runs with it.

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The result is endearing and charming, if perhaps just a little overly predictable and familiar. Drawing together a charming Irish cast, and shot in some lovely scenic locations, The Stage keeps its jokes ticking over. It moves at a nice pace, draws some wonderful laughs from the audience, and even manages a few neat character and plot arcs amid the gags. It might not be the most surprising or unconventional of comedies, but it accomplishes all that it sets out to do.

The Stag walks a very fine line. On the one hand, it’s very clearly a comedy about the silly things that men tend to do while sharing each other’s company away from it all. As such, exaggeration and over-the-top comedy are the order of the day. Everything feels just a little larger than life, right down to the ensemble’s quirky supporting character, “The Machine.” None of the other leads, including his sister refer to him by his given name, and nobody seems to drop the definitive article. This gives a sense of the heightened reality of it all.

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At the same time, The Stag also attempts to offer a bunch of heartwarming character-driven narratives. Everybody going on the stag weekend is given a very clear and linear character arc; none of them end the weekend where they began. Admitted, some of these arcs are bigger and more developed than others, but there is a conscious effort on the part of the script to view these lads as characters in their own right, rather than simply as walking punchlines in search of a slapstick gag.

It’s to the credit of The Stag that it manages both of these aspects so well. There’s never too long without a gag, meaning that things never get too heavy or too overwhelming, but there’s also a sense of character drama underpinning the humour. None of these individual character dramas ever get too heavy – even at the movie’s dramatic climax in the wilderness – and none of their outcomes feel particularly unpredictable. But that’s not the point here. As piece of comedy, The Stag is very meticulously constructed and very lovingly fashioned.

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The movie benefits from a cast that is clearly game for the material. The amount nudity involved would be questionable at any time of the year in Ireland, but it’s a remarkable commitment from the ensemble that it was filmed in winter time. While not all the ensemble players are afforded an opportunity to shine individually, they handle the movie’s humour remarkably well. In this respect, the largest weight is placed on co-writer Peter McDonald as “The Machine.”

“The Machine” is admittedly a one-dimensional character – a force of pure id who exists primarily to rip through the lives of the other characters like a hurricane. He’s a catalyst for various degrees of personal growth that need to occur, and – to be fair to the film – he even gets a little character arc of his own. However, McDonald gives the character a glimmer of humanity buried beneath his swagger.

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Director John Butler does some wonderful location work, capturing the isolation and beauty of the Irish wilderness – creating a sense of just how cut off our leads are from the world around them. The Stag benefits from some strong pacing, moving quickly enough (and keeping the jokes coming fast enough) that it never drags. Even if some of the jokes miss, there are always a few more following close behind.

The Stag does get a little bothersome when it tries to wade into questions about modern Irish masculinity. The groom is portrayed as a set designer who is apparently too heavily involved in the planning of his own wedding, prompting his fiancé to bully the best man into organising the weekend away. “The Machine” is portrayed as a hyper-masculine stereotype, asserting his alpha male dominance over the group. Along the way, various characters confront masculine stereotypes about dealing with wounded pride and sharing their insecurities or feelings with one another. This all feels a little rote.

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There are moments when the film handles these topics well – the “Kevins” are a gay couple who exist as more than mere stereotypes, and the movie isn’t afraid to call out the homophobic or transphobic attitudes of the cast. There’s just a sense that there’s much more that might have been done with these questions about masculine stereotypes and archetypes in modern Ireland. (Even the movie’s climax seems unsure how much to commit to this idea – one of the characters admits something deeply personal that he’s never articulated before, which is a nice little scene, but there’s a sense the movie’s not sure where to go with it.)

Still, that’s not a major problem. The Stag is a funny feel good comedy with a wealthy of great gags, a charming ensemble and some beautiful scenery. It’s diverting, entertaining and well constructed, hitting all the right buttons.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

2 Responses

  1. Great review!

    I admit I found the film itself a little underwhelming but I did find it fascinating in the sense of being an Irish film, with emphasis on the Irish part. Together with ‘The Food Guide to Love’, which was also part of the JDIFF festival it seemed to point towards a tentative post-recessionary mentality in Irish cinema.

    Both films (especially ‘The Stag’) do have a few nods towards the economic strain the country is under but they are still social/romantic comedies focused on the young, urban middle class who so dominated Irish cinema in the early 2000’s with the likes of ‘About Adam’, ‘Goldfish Memory’ and ‘Speed Dating’ (which coincidentally starred Hugh O’Connor – Fionnan in ‘The Stag’.) In recent years there has been a sharp reaction in Irish film making, pulling back to the terrain of the 1990s in dealing with crime and poverty – the likes of ‘The Guard’ and ‘Pilgrim Hill’ are excellent films but they feel like stylistic throwbacks to the pre-Celtic Tiger days.

    Does the return of the frothy middle class comedy signal a renewed national confidence? I’m not sure but it is fascinating this was the film the festival ended on.

    • I’d agree with that. I think your on to something with the trends there. I am curious about how The Stag will do box office wise; I suspect that will indicate whether the frothy middle class comedy is welcome back.

      It’s also worth noting that I really liked the Sunday programming. I was in Savoy 1 all day, and although only one of the four films was perfect (Safety Last! with live piano accompaniment), there was a wonderfully upbeat sentiment to the films shown. (Though I do have some issues with the choice of the Surprise Film, and the decision to slap the film introduced as “the one film that has everybody talking into the wee hours of the morning” with an embargo feels a little misguided. Still, it fit the cheery mood of the day, which I suspect was a reaction to the somewhat grim and downbeat scheduling of last year’s closing day.)

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