Written and directed by gay Irish talent, John Butler, The Stag misfires on all counts, says Simon Mernagh.
Clearly intent on wringing another sliver of joy from the inexplicably popular ‘one crazy night’ sub-genre of films, rather than a rollicking night to remember, The Stag instead feels like the most rotten of hangovers – it’s painful, not funny and simply refuses to end.
Fionnan (Hugh O’Conor) clearly doesn’t want a stag party before his marriage to fiancée Ruth (Amy Huberman), when being heteronormative, he’s ‘supposed to’. To this end, Ruth feels compelled to convince Fionnan’s best man, Davin (Andrew Scott) to whisk him away to the countryside for a weekend, along with Fionnan’s brother Kevin (Michael Legge), Kevin’s partner Kevin (Andrew Bennett), and friend Simon (Brian Gleeson). However, the arrival of Huberman’s loose cannon brother ‘The Machine’ (Peter McDonald) threatens to scupper their plans for trekking and camaraderie.
One can only expect a certain level of intelligence from a movie poster adorned with the headline “They’re About to Get in Touch with their Masculine Side”, but The Stag spawned from the creative mind of John Butler – not the Australian roots-rocker, but rather the gay Irish polymath responsible for IFTA-winning sketch show Your Bad Self and the critically applauded 2012 coming-of-age novel, The Tenderloin. That this is a talented guy is unquestionable.
What does (and should) raise eyebrows is the material he’s delivered here, his feature-length directorial début, co-written with Peter McDonald. Tackling ‘serious issues’ like the dark side of marriage and friendship just doesn’t work alongside the sort of Americanisms endemic to Hollywood’s endless streams of turgid goofball comedies. Compared to the recent and middling That Awkward Moment, is The Stag better or worse? Well, yeah, it’s an easier sit, but if that’s not ‘damning with fake praise’ then I don’t know what is.
Andrew Scott’s legions of fans can expect different shades of Sherlock’s nemesis, though the change isn’t a positive one; playing our grounded conduit between Fionnan’s (understandable) insecurities and The Machine’s (annoying) hyper-masculine insanity renders him a blank and not particularly interesting character. One wonders how tempted the BAFTA-winning actor was to break into Moriarty’s menacing scowl throughout – it certainly would have enlivened proceedings.
The Stag features the most tacked-on, arbitrary gay couple committed to celluloid since The Family Stone, way back in 2005. No doubt included to promote diversity amid uninspiring dude-comedies, ‘the Kevins’ exist for two reasons: desperately lame and repetitive gay jokes, and as a cloying dose of plot resolution sentimentality towards the finale. If a film wants to make such a big deal about a gay couple in modern Ireland, as The Stag does, at least give them decent material to work with.
This movie reinforces that queasy ‘effeminacy is bad, masculinity is good’ idea that pervades our culture like a particularly stubborn infection. Fionnan is dragged along on his vague pre-marital quest for no other reason than to ‘man up’, but the movie swiftly eats its cake with the aforementioned cheese-flavoured ending. It’s all a bit confused.
The Stag is a safe, unadventurous stab at modern humour, but even the best laid schemes can’t excuse the dearth of laughs in a self-professed comedy. Couple that with the baffling and needlessly gendered plot, and you’ve got a stinker. Go get lost in a forest instead.
The Stag opens in Ireland on Friday, March 7
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