The Stag was sold outside Ireland as a sort of Irish version of The Hangover, and while it does bear some similarity to that comedy, with its tale of urbanites out of their element on a bachelor weekend, and while it does have many familiar tropes of this kind of story (the lads get lost, get high, and get naked), it also has something that The Hangover didn’t: heart. If anything, it is more like a slightly scruffier but still endearing Richard Curtis comedy.
An Irish viewer will know right away that the characters are all from Dublin’s leafy and solidly middle class Southside. They are most definitely pampered urbanites; one is a theatre set designer; one is a unversity lecturer; they live in well-appointed homes and drive nice cars, and so on). As is so often the case with this sort of almost gentle comedy, it more than earns its moments of pathos.
Fionan (My Left Foot‘s Hugh O’Conor, all grown-up) is about to marry Ruth (Amy Huberman), and unlike most grooms, he is ridiculously interested in the details of the wedding (he’s something of a Groomzilla). Although this metrosexual Dubliner is not the stag type, Ruth persuades his best friend and best man Davin (Andrew Scott; Moriarty from Sherlock) to take him away for the weekend before the Big Day. Joined by their friends Simon (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan, brother of Domhnall) and Fionan’s gay brother Kevin (Michael Legge) and his boyfriend, also called Kevin (Andrew Bennet), the boys set off to the Irish countryside for a hiking holiday.
And it would be a very nice, uneventful holiday if not for Ruth’s brother, The Machine (Peter MacDonald, who also co-wrote the very funny script). The Machine is the guys’ worst nightmare: an obnoxious, gloriously politically incorrect alpha male, the heavy-drinking lout who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, who you just know is going to get you into trouble. To avoid him, the guys pretend the weekend isn’t a stag at all. They tell him it is in fact “a silent abstinent religious pilgrimage to ancient shrines … with transvestites.” But he shows up anyway and promptly gives them demeaning (and very funny) nicknames.
What follows is a breezy variation on the subject: Men Bonding While Naked in the Outdoors. It has some very funny moments, some obvious fish-out-of-water comedy, and some rather sweet performances. It runs through most of the standard plot points of this sort of thing. There’s an encounter with a bull in a field. The tent catches fire. And it keeps its serious side just under the surface. Although Fionan doesn’t know it, Ruth used to date Davin, and she broke his heart. Simon is a neurotic worry wart because his business is in severe trouble. The two Kevins have a problem because Fionan’s father does not want his Kevin’s boyfriend at the wedding.
And the Machine, for all his bluster, has problems at home (caused by a drunken incident on a plane when he pissed in the aisle “I did a bit of a Gerry Depardieu on it”). There’s also a running gag about his devotion to U2, much to the embarrassment of the others.
The central performance, I suppose, is by Scott, and he’s very good (particularly in the film’s one maudlin scene), but then again, so is everyone else. The situation is the stuff of broad farce, but there’s a gentle warmth to it; the dialogue is sharp without being cynical; and although there is the inevitable blow-up between Fionan and Davin over Ruth, it’s funnier than other occasions I’ve seen a similar scene. Perhaps that’s because they’re both naked. In the end, of course, everything works out – a little too neatly and quickly, but still.
The Stag was a big success when it was released in Ireland, and it is nice to see an Irish film that doesn’t feature priests, Guinness, junkies, or gangsters. Director John Butler has an unfussy, relaxed style, and the scenery is lovely.