Death at a Funeral
Nothing is sacred in comedy: not death, and, certainly not in minor British films that struggle for audiences even on home turf. Three years after Matthew Macfadyen laid his father to rest in a nightmarish farce of a ceremony, Chris Rock faces the very same dilemmas in this scene-for-scene Hollywood remake. Save for a few pop culture references, Dean Craig's script has been left intact on its trans-Atlantic journey, but the dwarf actor Peter Dinklage is the only member of the original cast to return. In their stead, Rock has assembled something of an African-American comedy all-star line-up (with James Marsden and Luke Wilson thrown in for good measure). Mostly playing it straight, Rock himself is Aaron, the grieving eldest child who is determined to eulogise his old man - even if fate seems to have other plans. For a start, the undertakers deliver the wrong coffin. And when that mess has been sorted out the priest (Keith David) and almost everyone else in the congregation are hoping that Aaron's younger brother Ryan (Lawrence), a professional wordsmith, will treat them to his eloquence. Their sister Elaine (Zoe Saldana) arrives with her new boyfriend, Oscar (Marsden). Meanwhile, Elaine's old boyfriend Derek (Wilson) is desperate to get her back, funeral or no funeral. Then there's Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), a bilious mass of resentment seething in his wheelchair. But most importantly there is Frank (Dinklage), a stranger to the family who is most insistent he talk privately with Aaron. Seems he knew the deceased rather better than anyone - and he has the photos to prove it. If this seems an odd project for Neil LaBute to direct, at least it's an improvement on the last British remake he put his name to, the dire Nic Cage misfire The Wicker Man. Famously unsentimental, The Shape of Things writer-director is actually a pretty good fit for Craig's caustic stress on family secrets, strained relationships and domestic disturbance. Still, the film's reliance on crude stereotypes and caricatures is indicative of its extremely limited ambitions, and LaBute can be unduly heavyhanded when it comes to staging the slapstick. Martin Lawrence's character is underdeveloped, and never really seems to belong in this family - he's more like a visiting guest star than a son and brother. While Marsden throws himself into the role of the tripping guest, it's a bit we've seen before many times, and the Elaine-Derek subplot is singularly mirthless. (the women, typically, get short shrift.) Tracy Morgan from Cop Out fares better, mugging it up mightily - which is probably the only way to go given the lavatorial sight gag that is the role's raison d'etre. Dinklage, too, knows how to sell a joke, even if it's a cheap one. A reasonably well-constructed farce, Death at a Funeral is not a dead loss, but it remains decidedly hit-and-miss in this reincarnation; disposable second-hand fare dressed up in its Sunday best.
* Tom Charity
Published: June 3, 2010 04:00 AM