I’d like to high-mindedly note that gratuitous swearing, dwarf wrestling, and someone getting covered in poo are not inherently funny. Except who am I kidding? We all know they are. And thanks to them and a fine cast of clowns, so is this version of Death at a Funeral.
Death at a Funeral is director Neil LaBute’s remake of Frank Oz’s 2007 film. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Really Hollywood? Three whole years between versions?” But you see, while Oz is American (the voice of Miss Piggy, Grover, and Yoda! The director of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, and Bowfinger!) his film was British. Full of British actors. Acting all British and stuff. Saying “boot” instead of “trunk,” and “lorry” instead of “truck,” and “lift” instead of “elevator,” and putting extra “U”s in all their words. Stupid British. What do they know about comedy and door-slamming farces?
So we have LaBute’s 2010 version, this time set in ‘Merica and featuring a mostly African-American cast. It’s true, LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) may be the last person you think of when you think “African-American film making.” In fact, after the abomination that was the 2006 Wicker Man remake, LaBute may be the last person you think of when you think “competent film maker.”
Luckily LaBute has a solid cast of characters to work with. (Emphasis on “characters” in the old-timey sense, as in “that guy over there with the lampshade on his head.”) Chris Rock centers the rambunctious proceedings as a man trying to give his father a proper send-off, despite everything and everyone else conspiring to turn the funeral into a free-for-all. Martin Lawrence is his more successful author brother, Tracy Morgan (always a force of screw-loose nature) and Luke Wilson are a couple friends with their own agendas (namely skin ailments, winning back ex-girlfriends, and yes, the aforementioned poo), and Danny Glover is the cranky old uncle who swears a lot.
Regina Hall, the great Loretta Devine, and Zoe Saldana play the women who have to put up with all the ensuing shenanigans, and Keith David and Ron Glass are equally surly as a minister and the brother of the deceased. Plus, Peter Dinkledge reprises his role as the mysterious, diminutive mourner full of secrets. Best of all, James Marsden gets to pull a series of hilarious faces in the Alan Tudyk role: an earnest school teacher accidentally dosed by Armored’s Columbus Short with a potent pharmacological hit of “acid and acid.” (Between this and 2008’s Sex Drive, it’s a delight to find the stuffy, ramrod “hero man” of the X-Men films is such a fine comic performer.)
That’s a pretty crowded stage, but that’s the point. This is old-fashioned door-slamming farce, or in this case casket-slamming farce—there’s no reason or meaning to it other than to run as many wild and crazy characters through as much comic mayhem as possible. Of course it tends to feel arch and contrived, but that’s the nature of the genre. (Also known as “bedroom farce,” it would include plays like Lend Me a Tenor and Noises Off, films like The Birdcage, and of course every episode of Three’s Company.) I happen to love door-slamming farces–how the best of them juggle so many increasingly ridiculous and interlocking situations, until the comic effect is more than just individual characters or humorous lines, but rather the fact the whole chaotic circus show gets pulled off.
Do LaBute and his massive cast pull it all off? Well, as my father would have said, “it’s good enough for the girls we go with.” LaBute is not a naturally loose and rolling director, and it doesn’t help that as brilliant as Chris Rock is as a comedian, he’s still often stiff and jerky as a comic actor. (He does “ya THINK?!” wide-eyed incredulity just fine.) Death at a Funeral ’10 can be choppy, a little start-stop-y, but fortunately enough crap is thrown at the wall (quite literally) by enough genuinely talented performers.
Naw, it’s not better than Oz’s British version—like all things American, it’s brassier, louder, and cruder, while, like all things British, the original plays things slightly (only slightly) more subtly and wryly. But with Rock, Martin, Morgan, and Marsden on hand, plus corpse slapstick, dwarf wrestling, and poo flinging, this new Death at a Funeral gets the job done. Or as my father the funeral director often proclaimed after a tricky internment, “Well, at least we got him in the ground.”