You gotta admire the stones on Vivieno Caldinelli; he’s written and directed a film about suicide in today’s climate of delicate sensibilities. And not just a film… a comedy film. It’s hard these days for folks to laugh about such dark subject matter, let alone chortling about folks intentionally shuffling off the mortal coil. I’m actually having trouble deciding if I’m offended or not, but either way, the blow is softened by the insufferably chipper leads.

In SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS BY PASSING THROUGH THE GATEWAY CHOSEN BY THE HOLY STORSH (holy crap, please let me catch my breath, and from now on simply refer to it as SEVEN STAGES) Claire (Kate Micucci) and Paul (Sam Huntington) are a young couple who have just moved into an apartment in Hollywood. Things seem perfect – it’s clean, conveniently located, and cheap – suspiciously cheap – and it’s not long before they find out why. A cult member with a spiral etched on his forehead breaks in, makes his way to the bathtub and proceeds to kill himself with a knife to the throat.

Panicking, Claire and Paul call on detective Gopher Cartwright (Dan Harmon) to help figure out what’s going on. But the madness doesn’t stop there, as a steady stream of weirdo cultists enter the apartment to follow their leader, the Holy Storsh (Taika Waititi) into the next life, who it turns out, killed himself in the bathtub.

The real pleasure of SEVEN STAGES is found in its eclectic cast of comedians and recognizable faces who (at some points literally) tap-dance their way in and out of the film. Rhea Seehorn, Mark McKinney, Brian Posehn, Dana Gould, Mindy Sterling, Ryan Simpkins, etc, many of them obviously doing a favor for a friend, but clearly having fun doing so. It seems there’s a whole genre of these offbeat indie flicks made on the power of Hollywood favors and backscratchings, and most of them don’t get much play outside of festivals, for better or worse.

The big surprise in SEVEN STAGES is the presence of Taika Waititi. No one would have blamed him if he’d disappeared off to some tropical island, but here he is in a quaint indie flick, fresh off directing the billion dollar Thor 3, donning a fake beard and strumming out folk music as the charismatic cult leader Storsh. Bless him. He’s a genuinely funny guy I’m always happy to see. It would have been nice if he’d had more screen-time, but I guess his scenes were filmed quickly.

Dan Harmon is also a highlight, looking like he walked straight out of a sleazy 70’s cop drama, sporting sideburns and oversized round frame sunglasses. While the film’s absurdist humor is admittedly hit and miss, Dan Harmon’s awkward detective manages to scrape up some true laughs. I haven’t seen much of his work outside of Rick and Morty and a few episodes of Community, but I found myself surprised by how amusing he can be on screen.

Despite some energetic moments thanks to the cast, it’s hard to recommend SEVEN STAGES to a casual audience. While the concept is definitely charming and unique, the joke runs its course before the end. Sadly, I could see the Netflix crowd shutting it off long before that, since the tone of the comedy isn’t exactly what the masses typically scramble after. However, it’s custom made for the festivals, and I’m sure it’ll entertain a decent amount of moccasin-wearing types on the circuit. Personally, I enjoyed its quirk, and the cast are enough to push it over the line, but I’m not sure I’d come back for a second helping.

SEVEN STAGES is currently screening as part of the Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival 2018.

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