Death at a Funeral (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Despite being directed by a Yank, Death at a Funeral has a very British flavour. In fact, at times it reminded me of nothing less than an extended episode of Fawlty Towers, minus the manic genius of John Cleese. The film begins slowly, with occasional low-key laughs widely spread. However, it then does something too few comedies achieve: it builds momentum. The closer we get to the end credits, the faster and more furious the jokes come, until they're tumbling all over one another. The film's climax is nothing short of hilarious. And Death at a Funeral doesn't discriminate when it comes to the type of humor it embraces it. Everything is in there, from physical hijinks to verbal repartee to naked man jokes to drugs and gross-out stuff.

Real-life couple Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes play Daniel and Jane, the film's straight men. (This is the same guy who was Mr. Darcy in the recent version of Pride and Prejudice. It's hard to believe - Macfadyen was rather stiff opposite Keira Knightley. Here, he's relaxed and believable.) These are the two who exist at the firestorm of the madness that is to come. As the film opens, Daniel is about to bury his father. The funeral director brings the coffin to the house, where the ceremony is to occur - except it contains the wrong body. If this isn't an indication that Murphy is on the loose, I don't know what is. But that's only the start. Guests begin to arrive, and they represent a cross-section of upper and middle class lifestyles. Simon (Alan Tudyk) has mistakenly been given LSD instead of valium and he's seeing strange things all around him. It's not an ideal way to impress the father of his girlfriend, Martha (Daisy Donovan). Profane old Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan) is unhappy at being treated with less respect than is his due. And who is the odd little man (Peter Dinklage) who is hanging around the coffin?

Comedy of this sort relies strongly upon delivering surprises, which is why I encourage anyone who wants to get a full share of laughter from Death at a Funeral to avoid the previews and commercials. They give away far too much, including the movie's biggest, best punch line. It's sad that the marketing people felt the only way to sell the movie is to emasculate its humor through out-of-context revelations. Of course, there's nothing new about this. I made the same complaint about The Hudsucker Proxy, and that came out more than a decade ago.

The films is populated by a group of very British eccentrics. Peter Dinklage, the only American in the bunch allowed to use his accent, is the wild card, and his antics lead inexorably to the madcap final 30 minutes. Veteran character actor Peter Vaughan deserves full props for falling effortlessly into the role of the handicapped old man who has a profane expression for every situation. Alan Tudyk spends most of the film acting like he's in the grip of hallucinogenic visions, and has a lengthy scene in which he's naked climbing a roof. Watching him is Peter Egan, who plays his stiff upper-lip would-be father-in-law. There are better ways to impress your girlfriend's dad; just ask Ben Stiller, who explored them at some length in Meet the Parents. Adding to the insanity are Andy Nyman as Howard, the hypochondriac with the unenviable job of performing bathroom duties for Uncle Alfie; rubber-faced Ewan Bremmer as the creepy Justin, who thinks his dubious charm can win back Martha; Kris Marshall as Troy, who hides LSD in his valium bottle; and Rupert Graves as Daniel's well-respected author brother. Had John Cleese wandered into this funeral, he would have been right at home.

The downside to the film is that it demands some patience. The first half is a little lackluster. The movie offers a few laughs as it paves the way to comedic mayhem, but pickings are slim for the better part of 40 minutes. Of course, one could argue that even during its most barren stretches, Death at a Funeral is more amusing that many so-called American comedies at their peaks. Director Frank Oz's credentials as the helmsman of funny movies are well established - he steered such productions as What About Bob?, In & Out, and Bowfinger. Improbably, this is a perfect choice for him, and the result ends up being a fusion of his off-kilter style and screenwriter Dean Craig's zaniness. Embarrassment may be the soil of British comedy, but the cringe-inducing fertilizer is all American. Death at a Funeral is flawed, but I'm willing to forgive a lot of flaws when a movie makes me laugh as much as this one.

Death at a Funeral (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1