Claire (Kate Micucci) and Paul (Sam Huntington) move into a city apartment that seems too good – and too cheap – to be true. Almost instantly, they’re confronted with the reason why the rest of the world isn’t banging down the door to live there as a tap dancing cult member breaks into the place and promptly commits suicide in their bathtub, which is exactly the spot where cult leader Storsh (Taika Waititi) took his own life previously.
As local detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon) closes another very short investigation into yet another corpse in the place and as landlady Beatrice (Mindy Sterling) presents Claire and Paul with a carrot cake to celebrate the first “tub death” under their lease, the couple braces themselves for more cultists to show up, which is not what they need as Claire is trying to make a name for herself at the ad agency where she works and Paul is trying….well, he’s just trying to write a resume, let alone get a job, after a particularly egregious series of decisions cost him both his employment in Ohio and his right to ever set foot there again.
Left with a book of the Storsh’s writings, could what seems to be his initially crazy view of the world actually have some relevance to Claire and Paul as they attempt to navigate life’s challenges? And how are they going to deal with random people turning up to use their bathroom for something a whole lot messier than the usual?
Directed by TV stalwart Vivieno Caldinelli and featuring various TV sitcom players, stand-ups and TV sitcom players who are also stand-ups, Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh (to use its full title) feels in many ways like a network comedy, albeit a darker one than you’d normally expect. That’s not to say it isn’t amusing but the wackiness dial is turned way up here and there’s the odd moment or two where a punchline is built for a subsequent pause so the laugh track can kick in.
Still, subtlety be damned. It’s not like after the first few minutes you should be expecting a genteel view of the human condition which allows you the opportunity to chuckle politely into your handkerchief when the wit becomes just too much to bear. This is a comedy about folks dying in all manner of ways and it’s only going to soften the blow with an onslaught of screwy, offbeat humour.
Yes, the central idea is in very poor taste but the script (by Christopher Hewitson, Clayton Hewitson and Justin Jones) and the cast works hard to point up the zany antics and quirky characters of the piece, resulting in something sufficiently over the top to steer the material away from any genuine offense it may cause.
It’s also a mini showcase for gifted comedy performers such as Mark McKinney to contribute amusing cameos as followers of Storsh. It’s the Kids In The Hall alumni who gets the most outrageous demise, his ideas of a quick, painless exit via cyanide going drastically awry, degenerating into a series of unsuccessful attempts by Micucci and Huntington to send the poor guy on his way by means of whatever household objects are to hand at the time.
As with most comedies, some of the jokes land, some don’t and the same can be said of the various subplots. Harmon’s detective has written a screenplay about his pursuit of Storsh and his desperation to get it made into a feature – and bag Wesley Snipes as the lead into the bargain – garners the most laughs. His self-filmed, to camera crime show monologue is a bit on the obvious side but it still made me smile.
Elsewhere, Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn is rather good as Meegan Nordheim, the ad agency’s worst/richest client, a nightmare of a woman with a 96-year-old husband, a twentysomething toy boy and a sudden desire to run for Congress. As a character, Meegan is the definition of one note but Seehorn manages to make as much of it as she’s able.
Considering he’s the de facto co-lead, Huntington has surprisingly little to do as Paul but play off his much more rounded and interesting partner. His burgeoning birdhouse business is an amiable diversion at first and ultimately functions as a neat symbol of the growing irritation at the whimsy and aimlessness of the character but it also becomes the most disposable element of the movie, figuratively and literally.
For all the mirth making talent on display, it’s Micucci’s movie. Sweet, smart, sympathetic, she’s eminently watchable and makes the flat spots in this less glaring than they would otherwise be. The last twenty minutes, in particular, sees the proceedings seriously run out of steam and its attempts to mesh the silly with the serious don’t quite succeed. By then, however, more than enough goodwill has been banked to take the viewer those last few yards to the finish line.
Neither the pitch-black comedy of terrors nor the merciless skewering of cults I’d been expecting, Seven Stages is nonetheless a warm-hearted, frequently ridiculous dose of fun which doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its comedic powerhouse of a cast but will provide a steady supply of sniggers to those who can tap into its unwaveringly madcap, see what sticks approach.