Director: John Butler
Starring: Andrew Scott, Amy Huberman, Peter McDonald and Hugh O’Conor
★★★ (out of five)
“You rampant hurrrmurrrsexuahlists” is the somewhat grandiloquent expression one character uses to address his fellow men in John Butler’s outdoor-pursuits comedy The Stag, a slapstick romp that mischievously implies Irishmen are not so tough as they used to be.
The man who makes this elongated utterance is called ‘The Machine’, played by Peter McDonald who makes a welcome return to our cinema screens.
McDonald co-scripted The Stag along with Butler and they clearly think the time is right for aiming humorous darts at the target of contemporary Irish masculinity – in all its post-Tiger, post-modern, metrosexual complexity.
The plot begins as voguish art designer Fionnan (Hugh O’Conor) is preparing his wedding to his dream girl Ruth (Amy Huberman).
Indeed Fionnan (who insists his name is pronounced “Finnorrrn”) is busily entrenched in the preparations, obsessing over invitations and table settings, and designing the reception hall to resemble the inside of a particularly sugary meringue. “Each detail is as important as the last,” Fionnan frowns.
He’s helped in his travails by best man Davin (pronounced “DA-ven”), played by the ebullient Andrew Scott. While Davin might be a hedonist and only slightly less effete than Fionnan, he is at least familiar with some of the more traditional, typical pastimes and pursuits of muscular Irish males – such as manly stag weekends.
Davin cajoles a reluctant Fionnan into a camping trip in the Galway mountains, along with their other friends - Simon (Brian Gleeson), a struggling businessman and a gay couple niftily named Big Kevin and Little Kevin (Andrew Bennett and Michael Legge). Inevitably, chaos ensues.
It’s at this point that The Machine enters the mix. As he’s Ruth’s brother and Fionnan’s future brother-in-law, the group are compelled to invite him.
Parachuted into Fionnan and Davin’s hill-walking weekend The Machine (as he’s referred to throughout) finds a motley crew of faint hearts, delicate souls and mammy’s boys. He strides in like a hyper-active Colossus, with a loud mouth and scornful sense of humour, and a Herculean appetite for drink and danger.
The boys soon find their stag weekend has been invaded by a moose on the loose, a rampant, reckless force of nature who thinks he’s Sylvester Stallone.
In a spirit of wild abandon he tosses their compass into a nearby pond, sets fire to their tent and is less than discrete with his personal bodily functions. “We need to roam free,” he enthusiastically avows. The Machine also has a habit of bursting into U2 numbers, something his more refined fellow travellers cannot endure.
There’s a good deal to engage with in The Stag, not least the performances of the actors. McDonald has gone through quite a shift in persona since he was the naïve film-obsessed school teacher in When Brendan Met Trudy (2000) or the hapless, half-baked hood in Paddy Breathnach’s cult crime comedy I Went Down (1997).
He does somehow blend the twin poles of hard man and ingénue in The Stag. There is a wide-eyed innocence to his character’s excessive, aggressive nature. The Machine is a cultural figure for an older and unreconstructed Irish machismo and his knack for roughing-up his smoother, more contemporary fellows conveys real comedic truth.
Where the movie is weak is in the support plotting and characterisation. Some of the side narratives seem tagged on rather than interwoven. There’s a homophobic issue involving gay couple the two Kevins and the hidebound refusal of Little Kevin’s father to accept his son’s relationship.
It’s a moral theme that could reveal a very deep dramatic dilemma but as there’s no room within the movie for it to form, the whole matter is settled with some corny dialogue that lacks emotional impact. (Old stager John Kavanagh earns his easiest cheque in years as Little Kevin’s conservative dad.)
Then there’s an added sub-plot concerning Davin’s long-held and secret love for Ruth, a desire he’s apparently disguised for years and particularly from his friend Fionnan.
Again, the inner dynamics of the story do not have room to develop fully and instead there’s an awkward resolution that’s only saved by an excellent bravura exchange between Scott and O’Conor.
Too often Irish films come to the screen in need of a tight trim by a sharp script editor. Movies with strong potential are unnecessarily weakened, as is the case here. Nevertheless, The Stag is enjoyable fun, with some hilarious, insightful moments and is well worth the price of admission.
The Stag is released nationwide from March 14