Writer-director: Jamie Greenberg
Starring: Benim Foster, Jesse Joyce, Mark Giordano, Jessica Faller, Matthew Rauch, Kimmy Gatewood
For all the visual thrill that modern studio moviemaking provides, there’s still a special charge that comes from discovering or submitting to, essentially, just a wordsmith — someone with a fresh, canted comedic perspective, damn any sort of slick camera razzmatazz. It’s just that sort of loose-limbed joy one finds with ‘Stags’, a New York-set, sort of Jewish-inflected version of ‘Swingers’, in which an on-the-prowl group of guys approaching 40 cope with a friend’s marriage and sudden death. The feature film directorial debut of television veteran Jamie Greenberg (co-creator of ‘Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?’, and story producer on Michael Moore’s ‘TV Nation’), ‘Stags’ just world premiered at the 14th annual Dances With Films festival, and could easily find wider embrace in arthouse distribution, among that cross-section of cinephiles who enjoy watching men act a bit like cads, and then defend their actions in hyper-articulate fashion.
Because every group must have one, Snedden (Mark Giordano) is the confident ladies’ man of ‘Stags’. A member of the “Oy Meets Girl” dating site, Victor (Matthew Rauch) is the nebbish of the group. Price (Jesse Joyce) is a jaded, cynical stand-up comic who unceremoniously destroys his relationship from the stage. The movie’s narrator and central figure, meanwhile, is Jack (Benim Foster), a frizzy-haired trophy store employee who in a pinch could serve as a stunt double for Michael Richards. Owing in significant part to the fact that she doesn’t understand how her name relates to the national Democratic ticket of 2004, Jack’s friends regard his girlfriend, Keri Edwards (Kimmy Gatewood), as something of a dim bulb, and he doesn’t much disagree. In fact, he loathes even calling her his girlfriend, and when a longtime pal returns from Los Angeles and springs his wedding on the aforementioned quartet, Jack weasels out of even asking Keri to accompany him.
When their friend suddenly passes away on his wedding night, however, Jack and his pals are thrown for a loop. It doesn’t bring about teary reflection and maturation, though, even after an awkward shiva. Emboldened by the newly discovered fact that their pal was a porn star, Snedden decides to “screw his way through the alphabet,” while Jack strikes up a friendship (and possibly more) with the quasi-widow, Amber (Jessica Faller). Victor, in the mean time, ponders procuring an escort. Against this backdrop of pitched lunacy, the guys individually and collectively spin their wheels, kicking and screaming against the sort of benchmarks of adulthood that they, in unspoken fashion, fear as death by papercuts.
Greenberg’s writing experience is on ample display, and gives ‘Stags’ its lift. There’s some terrific observational humor throughout (Snedden muses about olives’ “little anuses,” while Price assays the tendency of liberal white guys to say “man” to blacks working in retail or service industry jobs), and the rapport between the lead actors is solid. Though it’s definitely not as black-hearted, the movie sort of recalls something like ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, where there’s a value placed on the pace and connectivity of the patter itself, above and beyond any emphasis on its emotional content. ‘Stags’ bears the mark of a sitcom soul, in other words, though that’s hardly a disqualifying sin in this context.
If there’s a lingering knock against the picture, it’s that — some admittedly creative camerawork aside — ‘Stags’ has the feeling of something with a bigger canvas, but needs a much snappier telling. As a director, a technician, Greenberg is a bit out of his depth. A couple nagging framing and coverage issues pop up, and a bit tighter editing (at 101 minutes, the movie runs long) and brisker pacing, scene to scene, would give ‘Stags’ an unflagging, towel-snapping tone to match its quirky overall sense of humor. Still, the movie is an enjoyable low-budget discovery, the sort of breath of fresh air that true cinephiles never tire of discovering.
Written by: Brent Simon