TCFF REVIEW: ‘Stag’ (2012)

Grace: C

One of my least favorite aspects to movie writing is going to a festival and being forced to review something I simply did not like very much. This is particularly true for smaller films whose dependence on word-of-mouth buzz is absolutely critical, and I risk painting myself as a jackass. So how do I express my distaste for Stag while doing my best not to seem like I am picking on its writer/director Brett Heard? I suppose I could begin by acknowledging his movie is as a fairly sincere whack at the frat-boy man-child subgenre of comedy that folks like Todd Phillips have lately been ramming down our gullets. To Heard’s further credit, Stag manages to be far less mean-spirited than anything to come from the Hangover director’s filmography, and even manages before the end to contort itself into an apologia for the bad behavior of its misogynistic characters (though it conveniently stops short on becoming a full-fledged introspection on masculinity). Even if it has some interesting things going for it, however, Stag is beleaguered by one, crucial fact: as a comedy, it’s just not that successful.

Stag opens with a montage. In it, we are introduced to prankster Ken (Scrubs’ Donald Faison), who has become infamous for executing the most outrageous and downright cruel pranks at his friends’ bachelor parties. The opening montage shows the diversity of these jests: embarrassing photo-ops, (unintentional) body mutilation and even human trafficking via UPS. Ken’s pranks have become so notoriously over-the-top, so profoundly the subject of scorn among his friends, that he has no choice but to await the sweet, terrible revenge his best buds surely have in store for him. When his vexed fiancée asks why he would even bother indulging his friends’ revenge plot by attending the stag party, a vexed Ken retorts, “but it’s <em>my</em> stag party!”

But Stag is about more than watching its protagonist constantly looking over his shoulder. As the groom-to-be braces himself for the party in his honor, Heard shifts the movie’s focus to the many friends of Ken who are assembling, one by one, for the inevitable shitshow. We meet Luke (Jon Dore), a goodhearted yet bored family man who is asked to collect the stag party’s flirtatious stripper Candy (Leah Renee Cudmore). We also meet Henry (Jefferson Brown), a sweet enough guy who just can’t quite make it work with women. When others presume Henry’s bad dating streak might have to do with latent same-sex attraction, his best and oldest friend Paul (Tony Nappo) gets quite defensive – perhaps a bit too defensive, if you catch my drift. Other stag patrons include Rory (Brendan Gall), a vengeance-filled stag victim of Ken’s previous stag exploits, and Carl (Pat Thornton) a disheveled, schlubby actor who falls hard for the sexy actress starring of a movie he is working on.

At its core, Stag is just like any other movie of its kind: it uses crude humor, raw language and the promise of sex to spin a crass yet affirming tale of male friendship. And dick jokes. The concept has been played time and again in so many other films – most notably through the adultolescent spawn of Judd Apatow – and I would argue, frankly, it has been done better. I see what Heard is aiming for in attempting to interweave no fewer than five smaller arcs into a single film; he is not only looking for as diverse a pool of comedic situations as possible, but he is hoping to give a well-rounded outlook on what meaning can be found in a story of grown men bonding ritualistically in a sketchy bar for the promise of booze and boobs. But there are simply too many characters whose ability to resonate on a comedic level is undercut by the movie’s trim 84-minute runtime and Heard’s fleshless script.

Some characters, like Rory, are simply over-performed to compensate for the under-writing. Others, like Ken and Luke, learn their “lessons” not through character development, but through clumsy, “Here’s what I learned about myself”-style line readings. Other storylines, like Carl’s romance, relies heavily on the “loveable schlub” stereotype – one used too often in movies now – to do the heavy lifting. Heard never quite manages to convince the audience that his characters are truly worth knowing, and considering how most of the film’s comedy is situational, the punch lines effectively lose their punch.

Even the movie’s most inspired bits – like when Henry and Paul’s friendship veers from the homosocial into the homoerotic, or a key revelation involving the stripper Candy – feel like unearned story twists. One initially gets the sense that Heard wishes Stag to be a fairly traditional R-Rated comedy – warts, chauvinists and all – until he apparently decides he wants it to be a commentary on those same R-Rated comedies and their problematic tropes. That’s certainly not an impossible hat trick to pull off, but given the movie’s lack of fleshed-out characters, the approach here becomes a near-miss.

Still, to end my review of Stag on a lighter, more hopeful note, I must credit Heard for at least gunning for something fresh, even if it is ultimately too little, too late. Should he go on to make more movies in this vein (and in that respect, I genuinely wish him the best), I hope he indulges his self-reflective impulses a bit more thoroughly. That’s an indulgence I’d like to see more of in movies today.

Bottom Line: Stag is less mean-spirited than many of its contemporaries in the bromance comedy sub-genre, but it’s not that much funnier.

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