April 15, 2010

Death at a Funeral

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Death at a Funeral

COMEDY:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-04-16

Running Length:

1:38

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs, Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Zoe Saldana, James Marsden, Luke Wilson, Peter Dinklage, Columbus Short, Loretta Devine

Director:

Neil LaBute

Screenplay:

Dean Craig

Cinematography:

Rogier Stouffers

Music:

Christophe Beck

U.S. Distributor:

Screen Gems

Subtitles:

none


Death at a Funeral addresses the question of whether a British comedy featuring a bunch of white guys can translate into an American setting with a group of (primarily) black characters. Since the answer is "yes," this says something about the flexibility of the premise and the universality of the jokes. When gauging the appeal of the humor, it's fair to remark that there's something for everyone. The comedy runs the gamut from low-brow to high-brow, from physical to intellectual, from gross-out bathroom hijinks to the differences between a minister and a priest. The biggest laughs, however, come from the bawdiest moments, arguing that Death at a Funeral has its roots more in Benny Hill than in Noel Coward.

The existence of this version of Death at a Funeral is a curiosity, since it doesn't fit into a typical category. Remakes usually come in two flavors: an "old" (pre-1990) film being updated for a young audience or a recent foreign-language offering translated into English. Death at a Funeral, however, is a remake of a 2007 British film. The original was not only in English, but was directed by an American (Frank Oz), and it hasn't so much been re-imagined as it has been re-situated. This is essentially the same movie as its precursor, only with different actors playing the parts and slight tweaks to the dialogue. The major jokes are all the same, as are the plot points. The writer, Brit Dean Craig, handled both scripts.

When Oz helmed the 2007 incarnation, he came to the project with a reputation for exceptional comedic timing - an asset because he was working with a cast better-known for drama than for comedy. Things are a little different here. Neil LaBute has built a resume of darker pictures; even his comedies rarely garner big laughs because of the bleak nature of the material. (His best work remains his debut, the scathing In the Company of Men.) Although Death at a Funeral has a grim edge, LaBute's naturally glum tendencies are somewhat counterbalanced by the casting of several recognizable funny men, including Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan. If Death at a Funeral 2010 succeeds where Death at a Funeral 2007 did not, it will be because of casting and marketing. The earlier film was a mainstream comedy offered primarily to art-house audiences - not the right demographic for some of the extreme scenes. This one is being sold to those who frequent Tyler Perry movies which, although limiting, seems like a smart approach considering how successful Perry's films are at the box office.

Death at a Funeral transpires, expectedly, at a funeral. The deceased is the father of Californian Aaron (Chris Rock) and his successful brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who has flown in from New York. The single, womanizing Ryan is the family's luminary while the strait-laced Aaron is castigated by his mother (Loretta Devine) for failing to have a child - a situation Aaron's wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), is trying to rectify. Things don't start out well on the day of the funeral - the coffin contains the wrong body. Once that has been sorted out, the guests start arriving. They include Aaron's cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who has arrived with her fiancÚ, Oscar (James Marsden). Oscar is not himself, however, having accidentally taken a hallucinogenic drug before embarking upon the trip. Mismatched buddies Norman (Tracy Morgan) and Derek (Luke Wilson) are there as well. The former is obsessing over a skin rash while the latter carries a torch for Elaine. They arrive in the company of crotchety old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), who is never at a loss for a profane or inappropriate comment. And who is the dwarf (Peter Dinklage, reprising the part he played in the earlier incarnation) hanging out near the coffin?

The characters with the highest amusement value are the same as those in the British incarnation: the whacked-out Oscar, the high-strung Norman, the foul-mouthed Uncle Russell, and the little person. This provides Tracy Morgan with an opportunity to outshine his veteran compatriots, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. Although both have their moments, necessity restrains them. Rock in particular is low-key since he's essentially playing a straight man. Meanwhile, although Marsden is effective as the acid-ingesting Oscar, his "naked man on the roof" sequences are impeded by the occasionally awkward editing required by the actor's decision to use a body double (not an issue with Alan Tudyk, who did his own nudity in the original.)

Despite being relocated and re-cast, Death at a Funeral remains a funny motion picture. Those few who saw the original probably have no reason to experience the Americanized version since it offers little that's new (with the possible exception of Danny Glover's Lethal Weapon allusion: "I'm getting too old for this shit") and some of the spontaneous and surprising jokes don't work as well on a repeat viewing. For everyone else, however, Death at a Funeral does what a good comedy is supposed to do: generate laughter. The humor gradient is lopsided - the second half, which builds comedic momentum, is significantly funnier than the first half, which is mostly set-up. Still, any such unevenness aside, the overall impression is one of enjoyability.

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