Richard Drumm joined the party and takes a look at The Stag, which closed this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Under orders from bride-to-be Ruth (Amy Huberman), best-man Davin convinces his best friend Fionnan (Hugh O’Conor) to have a stag-weekend despite his early reluctance. Everything seems to be in place for a quiet weekend of hiking with a small group of friends until a wildcard appears in the guise of The Machine (Peter McDonald), Ruth’s brother and a significantly more boisterous personality than Davin and co are used to. And thus the scene is set for all manner of hijinks, misunderstandings, nudity and more character drama than you might expect.
There’s a moment early on in The Stag where The Machine first enters the film with his awkward, over-the-top attempts at ‘humour’ and all hope seems to drain from the very screen. Thankfully however, this appears to have been an intentional manoeuvre to wrong-foot the audience as the film almost immediately changes course once the hiking portion of plot begins and everything settles into a much more naturalistic and genuinely funny flow. It is unfortunate that the opening movement of the film is decidedly spotty because once the plot-proper gets going there is a lot to like with The Stag.
The most refreshing aspect of the film is that at no point does it feel the need to descend into lazy, tired ‘paddy-wackery’ style humour like almost every other Irish comedy. There are no jokes where the punchline is just ‘listen to how thick their accent is, isn’t that hilarious?’ or ‘oh, aren’t colloquialisms from rural Ireland just delightfully quaint?’ No, The Stag (for the most part, anyway) places its emphasis on clever writing and some quite amusing, smaller set-piece gags. There are a few jokes of the low-hanging-fruit variety that fall decidedly flat, like the previously mentioned first appearance of The Machine, but they’re largely in the first act of the film before the characters actually get into the countryside.
It is odd how everything about the film only seems to fall into place once the hike begins because on top of the humour settling in, the cast do too. Andrew Scott is of course the main focus and he doesn’t disappoint. Naturally it’s near-impossible not to have a smile to yourself at seeing ‘Moriarty’ being a best-man but the novelty quickly wears off and over the course of the film Scott demonstrates his range definitely extends further than just playing consulting criminals (admittedly the fact that Scott is playing a college professor in this certainly didn’t help shake off said novelty.) The rest of the cast are equally fun to watch and share a convincing chemistry together, especially in the more dramatic moments. The real praise should, however, go to McDonald. For what looked on the surface to be one-dimensional, insufferable, ‘wacky’ character, he brings an impressive level of control to his performance as the slow reveal of what is ultimately the most tragic character in the film.
Sadly, the film slightly falls apart in the final ten minutes once the story moves back to Dublin. After doing a surprisingly good job of setting up and expanding upon a lot of issues with modern Ireland and Irish society (financial problems, the very guarded nature of Irish masculinity, older generations’ inability to accept the normalisation of homosexuality in a modern society, etc.), it almost seems like we’re about to get a somewhat ambiguous ending that doesn’t resolve any of these rather large and complex issues. Indeed, there’s a shot of Scott walking through a field that would have been an ideal place to finish. But instead the film goes on to show the wedding and over the course of that scene resolves practically every source of conflict or distress that had previously been mentioned. It’s disappointing because many of these issues don’t have simple solutions and it felt like it would have been enough for the film to merely draw attention to, and have a small discussion about, them. Instead we get an almost unbearably saccharine ending which feels out of place with the more naturalistic and grounded nature of the preceding half an hour or so.
On the whole though this is still a genuinely amusing film which, despite taking a little time to find its feet, settles into a comfortable and nicely heartfelt comedy that far exceeds a lot of recent Irish attempts at such broad humour. For a film that purports to be about modern Irish issues, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t quite have the resolve to end at a more natural point and be content to have merely created a dialogue on those issues. The final scene wraps things up a bit too neatly and is in danger of trivialising some of the good work that came before. However, this doesn’t necessary detract from the comedy itself and so will likely be a moot point for most people.
The Stag screened on Sunday, 23rd February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).