CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

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