By: Jeff Ching
I was excited when I found out that Stanleyville was the feature directorial debut of Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, who wrote 2013’s The Father – one of the most criminally underrated dark comedies of all time. The Father was a Canadian film about a husband and father trying to move on with his life after dealing with the shocking news of his wife getting arrested for cheating on him…with a minor. What a concept, and a hilariously twisted dark comedy. However, even I wasn’t prepared for my reaction as soon as the credits rolled for Stanleyville, which was “what the hell did I just watch?” in both a good and bad way.
Stanleyville is wildly unpredictable and it’s very different from everything else out there right now. It’s almost like Canadian cinema’s answer to Netflix’s Squid Game – low budget, very random, weird as hell, quirky characters, a dark sense of humour, and co-starring Julian Richings (Ejecta, Prisoner X, Stardust). I think Richings is Canada’s premiere character actor who’s as much a staple of Canadian cinema as Don Mckellar or Bruce McDonald; you do not forget his face. I met Julian on the set of The Limb Salesman, which was the first big production I ever worked on as a production assistant, almost 20 years ago…damn. Pretty quiet guy, but when he spoke, everyone paid attention. He is easily the highlight of Stanleyville and I can’t imagine any other actor playing his role better. He plays a character named Homunculus. See what I mean about the movie’s randomness?
While Squid Game had a massive jackpot of money at stake, Stanleyville randomly selects five people for a contest, where the winner will take home…an orange Habanero compact SUV, and to achieve authentic personal transcendence – that feels like a very Canadian thing for a screenwriter to come up with. The host – Homunculus explains that that are 10 challenges. When one of the contestants remarks that there’s only 8 rounds listed on the blackboard, Homunculus looks back to notice that, then immediately replies with, “Sounds good. There will be 8 rounds.” What’s fun about Julian Richings’s performance is how little his character cares about his job, and how indifferent he is to human suffering.
The 8 challenges are all very different from each other. One challenge can last a minute, while another can last days. Challenge #1 is: who inflate the most balloons in a minute until they pop. Another challenge is who can come up with the best national anthem for the entire world, which will unite humanity; I really did enjoy the national anthems the characters came up with. I think maybe the funniest comedic payoff though was who can create the best tele-communication device with whatever objects are available; or perhaps round five, to which I won’t spoil what happens, but that was expertly accomplished dark comedy. Of course, with the Squid Game comparisons, you know that things will also get much darker and violent as the story proceeds.
I’m torn on Stanleyville. It has some hilarious moments, and there’s no such thing as being too weird with this concept. But, even at a slim 90 minutes, the movie feels long. I’m trying to put my finger on what it is. Perhaps it’s a bit of the meandering, episodic structure. Perhaps it’s the fact that all the contestants are one-dimensional caricatures, and they just aren’t as funny as the writer intended. Andrew Frisbee Jr, for example, will get angry if you address him by Andrew Frisbee and not Jr. It’s a joke that gets repeated a lot, but never lands. Then, there’s an issue with the protagonist Maria (Goodnight Mommy’s Susanne Wuest), who is clearly the only likeable person in the group. I didn’t find enough reasons to care for how dead she feels inside and why she needs this contest to achieve personal transcendence. Of the five contestants, Cara Ricketts (The Meaning of Life) is the standout, playing Felicie Arkady, who may come off nice at the beginning, but is conniving and will stop at nothing for that orange SUV. The performances from the rest of the cast are fine.
I think the movie ultimately paints a bleak picture of humanity; the immoral things we’re willing to do four our selfish desires. If these characters will behave the way they do for an orange SUV, imagine what they would do for, say, a million dollars?
As I’ve recapped a lot of these moments, I find myself smiling quite a bit, so I’ll give Stanleyville a recommendation. I always have more respect for a movie that takes huge risks over a movie that plays it safe. I didn’t love the movie as a whole, but there are definitely parts it that I did love. I hope to see more from Maxwell McCabe-Lokos. He has a unique voice and a twisted dark sense of humour. And while we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind seeing more from Julian Richings either.
Final rating: *** (out of 5)
Read more of Jeff Ching’s thoughts on film at The Ching of Comedy’s blog.