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2018 is proving to be the year of the high-concept comedy all around cinema, from the overrated Game Night to the deeply underrated Tag and Blockers. And now the micro-budget indie world steps up to the plate with Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh (hereby referred to by its clubhouse nickname, Seven Stages).
This is a hot prospect, and it knows it, boasting what it it thinks is a killer strength: It’s swell premise, about a couple (Sam Huntington and Kate Micucci) who move into a new apartment only to discover that a group of cultists frequently break in to their place to use their bathroom as a venue for their ritual suicide. It winds up, hoping the writers in the stands note its impressive attributes (loads of your favorite indie comics make appearances!), only to get hit square in the jaw by a fastball and carted off the field before it can even swing. The crowd is silent, observing that Seven Stages doesn’t give a thumbs up when it leaves the field, and it’s DOA on arrival at a local hospital.
At least in the metaphor, laws are passed and rules are changed to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. It should be a criminal offense to have people like Taika Waititi (playing the dead cult leader who inspired all of this nonsense) and Dan Harmon (playing the cop who “brought down the Storsh”) in your movie and use their talents this poorly. It’s flatly directed by frequent This Hour Has 22 Minutes helmer Vivieno Caldinelli, but Seven Stages is also somehow, pretty boring. Its kind of humor plucked straight from the school of “random” comedy that died out in the mid-aughts after the main audience for “Charlie the Unicorn” discovered that going out at night was fun. We typically get one or two of these every few years, which attempts to mask its creative bankruptcy with twee, oxymoronic takes on life and death, like fucking Wristcutters: A Love Story, and while not as shamelessly terrible as that movie, this still isn’t very good. The good version of this film is something like Dave Made a Maze, which was full of enough heart to sustain the twee, but the core here is ultimately hollow, and the characters remain aloof and are impossible to connect with.
I hate writing pans like this (not like this; that kind of pan is more ethically justifiable), and a tiny film like this honestly doesn’t deserve this vivid or full-throated of an attack from a reviewer, but I was just so crushingly disappointed in Seven Stages that it’s hard not to get frustrated about. There’s just so much potential here, and occasionally it cracks through the surface, be it in Micucci’s overwhelming attempts to make the physical comedy in this movie tolerable, or in Harmon’s committal to his role, or in Waititi’s singing voice, but it’s overwhelmingly buried by just shamelessly boring material that doesn’t serve anybody well. All of the imagination was used in the logline, and what you’re witnessing is the failure of imagination to take that premise and expand it out into something with real shape. Even the thematic intrusions on the comedy — that the central couple at the heart of the film might possibly not be great together, or that Huntington’s character might be a man child who refuses to grow up, or that Waititi’s character might be right, ultimately — don’t hold much water.
I hope that Caldinelli is able to use this experience well in his career — he has a skill for coming up with fun ideas — and is able to improve his style to support those premises with enough gusto for a theatrical presentation. Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a wash, and I can only really say that Seven Stages a compelling watch if you’re some kind of Waititi completist, who desperately needs to see his beard in this.
Seven Stages should hit theaters sometime in 2018.