It seems like only yesterday I was giving a passing grade to Death at a Funeral, the 2007 British farce from director Frank Oz. Amazing, how quickly a remake can come along. What’s even more amazing is that, despite being virtually the exact same film, this new 2010 version is even funnier. It is, in fact, the funniest film I’ve seen since Get Smart. Before, the premise was crazy, but now, it reaches levels of insanity that I simply could not ignore. Oh, I tried to tell myself that I’m an adult now, that I’m too old to laugh at any of this, that I’m supposed to be out of my dirty jokes phase. But on this particular trip to the theater, I felt very immature indeed. Essentially, I let my guard down and just allowed myself to enjoy what I was watching.
You see, I normally wouldn’t be amused by the sight of an old man sitting on a toilet and doing his business while someone else’s hand is pinned underneath the seat. And usually, I would find the … aftermath of this scene disgusting, cheap, lowbrow, and needlessly vulgar. But boy, how I laughed. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop being a critic and allow yourself to take pleasure in what you’re viewing.
Perhaps it helps that it features a great variety of stars, all of whom are naturally funny. At the center of it all is Chris Rock, who successfully balances the screenplay’s use of slapstick comedy, witty dialogue, and quiet interludes, the latter surprisingly rich, if ultimately brief. He plays Aaron, who seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders now that his father is dead and everyone is gathering at his home for the funeral. His wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), wants to get pregnant – on the day of the funeral. His mother (Loretta Devine) says nothing kind to Michelle and clearly favors her other son, a successful but financially irresponsible writer named Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who hasn’t lived up to his end of the deal when it comes to paying for the funeral. Aaron, jealous because of his own failed writing ambitions, is continuously reminded that Ryan was expected to give the eulogy, not him.
Before long, he’s approached by a dwarf named Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the 2007 film). He has numerous pictures that prove he had been … very, very close with Aaron’s father. Unless he receives $30,000 in compensation, he will expose his secret to the rest of the family.
Other zany subplots are woven throughout the story, including the dead man’s niece, Elaine (Zoe Saldana), having to get a handle on her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), who mistook a hallucinogen for a valium and is now wreaking havoc all over the house. At the same time, she has to contend with her disapproving father (Ron Glass) and her ex-boyfriend, Derek (Luke Wilson), who seems incapable of taking no for an answer. We also meet the crotchety Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and a family friend, Norman (Tracy Morgan), who Uncle Russell hates for no apparent reason. In one form or another, both find themselves drawn into the rapidly escalating Frank fiasco.
The director is Neil LaBute, whose film and stage work has been defined by unflinching depictions of human behavior (I exempt his remake of The Wicker Man, a truly awful movie). Remember his previous film, Lakeview Terrace? Aside from being a genuinely thrilling ride, it was also one of the most intelligent, complex, and honest examinations of prejudice and relationships of recent memory. Death at a Funeral is certainly much different in tone, but it still benefits from LaBute’s affinity for strong characters and themes. Yes, they’re all greatly exaggerated, but not so much that we don’t see some degree of truth in them; we believe in the reality of Aaron’s personal and financial woes, we understand his wife’s persistence, and we can sympathize with anyone who has had to deal with an Uncle Russell. As they say, there’s one in every family.
I was also impressed with the quality of the performances, especially Marsden’s; it’s one thing to act like you’re under the influence, but it’s quite another thing to keep that act consistently interesting, and to make sure there’s still a personality underneath it all. He manages this, making him not only funny, but engaging as well. Also of note is Danny Glover, who isn’t given much screen time but definitely knows how to make the most of what little he has. He’s over the top, but that’s okay because, given the screwball nature of the plot, subtlety would not have been appropriate. I noted back in 2007 that the “fun” had been put back into “funeral.” It seemed all right to say it then, but now I realize that I should have reserved it for this version. While the original was amusing, the new Death at a Funeral is truly a lot of fun.