In Spa Weekend, out-of-work actor Josephine Murphy (Maureen O’Connell) is looking for any excuse to get away from the humdrum humiliation of struggling through.
Exiled from London, she’s back in Dublin, ashamed and living at her family home. Jo gets no respect from her mother, her peers, or their parents.
Everyone talks down to her with a condescending mock sympathy. An upcoming birthday lends Jo the perfect opportunity to get away from her friends and family and their nagging that she try out for Fair City.
Feeling alienated from her old gal pals who have their shit together in ways that she can’t comprehend, and burnt out from her job slinging popcorn at the Cine-Lux, Jo tricks an old acting pal, Stoney (Steven Neeson), into accompanying her on a birthday get-away that she says is going to be to a luxury spa – but is actually a camping trip.
Jo and Stoney are on similar paths. He has a nervy confidence that’s charming to us but not to casting directors. Our introduction to Stoney as an actor sees him bombing out of an audition right before Jo does the same. The two meet up afterward and share a coffee, neither of them wanting to let the other know how badly their career is going.
Some cute Annie Hall-style subtitling lets us in on their innermost thoughts as they idly chit-chat. O’Connell lets the camera hang on each character a little longer than you’d expect.
The subtitling – paired with Jo and Stoney’s pained, searching expressions as they attempt to impress one another and keep up appearances – starts the film in earnest. From this scene on, the film takes a joke-in-every-line approach to scripting that mostly pays off.
The sheer number of jokes in Spa Weekend is impressive enough, that most of them raise a chuckle and many made me laugh out loud is better still.
In many mainstream comedies, there’s a trend towards a curated improvisational style of comedy, where actors are allowed to scat and bebop all over the place for as many takes as the director needs to stitch together some solid gags.
More often than not this approach means more riffing, a longer running time but less laughing. It’s the million-monkeys approach to scripting.
Maureen O’Connell and her co-writer, Karl Argue, are just two Homo sapiens, and yet, Spa Weekend’s script is tighter, and funnier, than many other comedies taking up screens in a cinema near you.
Of course, the volume of jokes means that not all of them can be winners. O’Connell makes liberal use of inter-titles and vignetting, especially in the first half of the film.
For a little while then, Spa Weekend plays like a sketch show with a loose narrative thread. As with any series of sketches some hit and some miss, but the film’s brisk pace and rapid-fire delivery mean that most missteps are corrected by a subsequent joke.
This constant feeling of movement from one humorous situation to another is appealing in that it allows for maximum laughs. O’Connell is canny in how she builds the narrative in an almost subliminal manner, so much of the film is made up of jokes, that we tend not to take the characters or their situations all that seriously.
So, when the film asks us to consider Jo and Stoney on a human level – it’s a surprising but welcome shift in tone. The film’s turn from sketch to buddy picture and then to a sort of drama, is like a slow-burning joke, with an “aha” rather than a “haha” kind of punchline.
O’Connell and Argue develop the film’s characters so as to give the jokes on the backend of the film a deeper significance. There are still plenty of laughs but they’re underscored with an earnestness and humility that resonates in ways we didn’t expect.
O’Connell gives us an intimate view of Jo and Stoney through the cramped space of a tent. More and more these characters feel like people people and not funny people, though they are, of course, still funny even when the revelations start flying and outside forces break up the party.
What’s delightful and clever about Spa Weekend is the journey the film takes us on. From laughing at these two chuckleheads to laughing with them and ultimately rooting for them in love and life and an increasingly desperate and weird hostage situation they find themselves in.
See, Stoney forgot to tell Jo that Paul, a brilliantly unhinged Shane Connellan, was after him to collect a debt. Some of the film’s standout moments are reaction shots of Paul’s face as he observes Stoney and Jo’s camping adventure from afar.
Connellan’s expression – somewhere between bemusement and contempt – makes Jo and Stoney’s double act even funnier. Their play acting is wholesome and ridiculous and works well when set against Paul’s murderous intent.
There’s a well-observed joke about people treating the board game Articulate like Charades that hit close to home. In this instance I could empathise with Paul’s wanting to shank Jo and Stoney.
When the credits rolled on Spa Weekend I had the impression of a kitchen-sink approach to the film’s production. It felt like Argue and O’Connell were effectively throwing every idea up on the screen. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of the filmmaking process.
Happily though, Spa Weekend is mostly good stuff. Some jokes seem ill-considered, but they’re still effectively constructed; similarly, the resolution to Jo and Stoney’s camping misadventure is rushed through, for comic effect of course, but it feels like script convenience more than anything else.
There are some parallels to be drawn between O’Connell, who goes by Mo, according to some press material, and the inspired, fighty Jo that we see at the close of the film. Maureen O’Connell, award-winning director, accomplished actor and writer is a vision of the character Josephine’s future.
At one point in the film a snooty Cine-Lux patron sees a poster for O’Connell’s short Proclaim: “Oh that’s not that Mary O’Connell. Ugh, I mean how low can you get? She puts herself in her own films like.”
She buys a ticket and adds “I suppose it’s good to support Irish talent even if they’re shite.” O’Connell is anything but, and the same goes for Spa Weekend, which is smart and funny from beginning to end.