My sophomore English teacher allowed us to endlessly rewrite our essays for a higher grade, and once, after multiple drafts yielded no higher than a B+, he told me I should learn when to stop, because sometimes you can’t make something better no matter how hard you try. The feeling goes for Death at a Funeral, a slavishly faithful remake of the 2007 British farce. An outrageous comedy of errors no matter what side of the Atlantic it’s set, the script always seems to be a few steps ahead of the actual film. The plot, about a patriarch’s funeral gone horribly wrong, certainly provides material ripe for laughs, but the humor never quite lives up to the high stakes.
Still, this American version goes down a little easier, perhaps because I braced myself for disappointment but mostly because of the cast. Featuring a hodgepodge of distinguished performers, well known comedians, and young upstarts, they are more comfortable with the material, attuned to the fine balance between pure wit and physical comedy. There’s also a chemistry that’s missing from its buttoned-up predecessor. Robert Ebert wrote that the actors “work together like a stock company,” and it’s this ease of handing off lines and looks that keeps the show running.
Comedian Chris Rock has straight man duties this time and orchestrates the proceedings as Aaron, the eldest son of the deceased. The funeral is to take place at the family home, and as friends and relatives converge, things get increasingly out of hand. The arrival of his brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a successful author, stirs up feelings of jealousy since Aaron’s still living at home and has only a handful of pieces published in Jet to his name. Cranky Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) just wants to get things over with and eat his potato salad, much to the annoyance of Norman (Tracy Morgan), who’s on chaperone duty. Then there’s the cousins, Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and Jeff (Columbus Short). She and her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), want to announce their engagement to her disapproving father (Ron Glass), but nerves get the better of him. She accidentally gives him a hallucinogenic concocted by her pharmacy student brother, resulting in a string of embarrassing moments, each one more extreme than the last.
This branch of the family was my favorite to watch. The actors carry off an aura of cool restraint even as everything crumbles around them. Marsden is the exception as his role liberates in more ways than one. The characters of Aaron’s wife and mother, on the other hand, are further reduced to bit players. Regina Hall doesn’t have much to do except complain about not having sex with Aaron while Loretta Divine doesn’t do anything except complain about her kids not having sex. Peter Dinklage returns as a mysterious guest with a shocking secret. His character, and the manic fallout that accompanies him, fits more snuggly in with the rest of the chaos. With some of the others pulling their weight in equal measure, he doesn’t seem to be the one joke bombshell that the movie builds up to.
But if this incarnation of Dean Craig’s story works better, it still doesn’t exactly work. It promises far more than it delivers and relies on absurdities that border on juvenile. Someone’s hand gets caught on the wrong end of a delicate bowel movement. There’s a minor kidnapping episode that gives license to homophobic and other offensive jokes. Another character tries to seduce someone who might be an actual juvenile, though here Rock throws in a deadly quip about juice boxes. There’s potential for this to have been a smarter, funnier remake, but with the plot and characters virtually unchanged, it’s just an unnecessary one.
Prod: Sidney Kimmel, William Hordberg, Chris Rock, Share Stallings, Laurence Malkin
Dir: Neil LaBute
Writer: Dean Craig
Cast: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Danny Glover, Tracy Morgan, Zoë Saldaña, James Marsden, Regina Hall, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson, Keith David, Ron Glass, Kevin Hart
Time: 92 min
Country: United States