Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss, 2018.
Directed by Vivieno Caldinelli.
Starring Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi, Rhea Seehorn and Mindy Sterling.
A couple is shocked to learn that their new LA apartment is often used by cultists to commit suicide.
It’s very difficult to make suicide funny. There have been a handful of attempts over the years, with only Heathers – which had murders dressed up as suicide – and some enjoyable montages within the Happy Death Day films ever really rising to the occasion. The preposterously named indie comedy Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh makes a play for a spot on that very brief list, but it falls considerably short, despite the Samson-like power of Taika Waititi’s facial hair.
The movie opens with Waititi in a dressing gown and strumming a guitar as cult leader Storsh, crooning about achieving “instantaneous eternity” through suicide. Meanwhile, idealistic Ohio couple Claire (Kate Micucci) and Paul (Sam Huntington) are starting a new life in LA. She has her dream job at a PR firm and he’s just happy to have escaped a blunder that made them pariahs at home. It quickly becomes clear that their suspiciously cheap apartment is the location of choice for Storsh’s cultists, who believe they can reach nirvana by killing themselves in the same bathtub where their leader met his end.
The big screen debut of TV comedy veteran Vivieno Caldinelli, this is a movie that is marinaded in painfully forced quirk. Every element is calibrated to appeal to the cult comedy crowd, with a supporting ensemble cribbed from American sitcoms and stand-up. The use of Waititi in a small but significant role also plays in to that, with perhaps the pièce de résistance being the casting of Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon as a hapless cop writing a screenplay about his life. The movie knows who it’s playing to and has assembled a hand of cards that will bring that audience to the door.
Sadly, the precision-tooling of the casting process did not apply to the execution of the movie. The concept of a couple being slowly seduced into the suicide cult which periodically uses their house is an interesting one, but Caldinelli’s movie is played at such a shrieking, manic register that it never makes the most of its ideas. Huntington yells all of his dialogue through a rictus grin and, though Micucci – best known as Raj’s socially awkward girlfriend Lucy in The Big Bang Theory – excels when the manic energy escalates, you find yourself wishing everyone would turn it down a notch or two.
The anarchy of Seven Stages is its greatest curse, with the narrative skittering from scene to scene without ever pausing for long enough to either eke some real laughs out of its premise or say anything profound about the nature of blind belief. The notion of a pair of otherwise reasonable people being seduced by a madman with an explanation for everything has potential for real resonance in today’s world, but the film simply isn’t interested in that amid its chaotic bloodletting.
Strangely, this feels like a case of simultaneously trying too hard and not trying hard enough. On the one hand, Seven Stages is a permanently hysterical screech of a movie in which the page of the dictionary bearing the word “subtle” was presumably burned to ash and then fired into the moon just to make sure. However, the film also seems content to just wave the Waititis and Harmons of the world at people and hope their mere presence is enough to bring the quirky comedy crowd along for the ride.
This is an example of squandered potential disappearing in a haze of indulgent nonsense. The film is a triumph of zeitgeisty casting and boasts a premise with real possibilities, but in focusing on the broadest and noisiest aspects of the comedy, it never manages to exploit the richness of its concept. Taika Waititi with a guitar and a beard can save a lot of things, but it couldn’t save this one.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.