Judge Erich Asperschlager came not to praise Death at a Funeral, but to bury it.
Last rites…and wrongs.
In high school and college, I was a certified Anglophile—endlessly fascinated by just about every facet of British life. From superfluous "u"s to the meaty brown-ness of HP Sauce, I practically bathed in across-the-pond culture. Though I still have a soft spot for British music of the "invasion" variety, Monty Python, and the Scottish novelty song "Donald, Where's Yer Troosers?" my days of blind Brit love are long past. Death at a Funeral is the kind of oh-so-English movie I might have tolerated 10-15 years ago. Too bad it didn't come out then.
Facts of the Case
A patriarch has died, and his family and friends are getting together to pay their last respects. Dutiful son Daniel (Matthew Macfayden, Pride and Prejudice) is dreading the arrival of his expatriate brother Robert (Rupert Graves, V for Vendetta), a successful novelist, while Daniel's new bride Jane (Keeley Hawes, A Cock and Bull Story) is hoping this life change means they can finally move into a flat of their own. Cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan, Daisy Does America), meanwhile, is dreading telling her disapproving father she's gotten engaged to Simon (Alan Tudyk, Knocked Up)—though it turns out she should be more worried that the valium he took at her "pharmaceutically inclined" brother Troy's (Kris Marshall, Love Actually) flat was, in fact, a boutique hallucinogen. And though he's no one's blood relative, the ready-to-please Howard (Andy Nyman, Peak Practice) has to work double-duty, dealing with the demanding, wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan, Time Bandits), and Justin (Ewen Bremner, Trainspotting), a friend of a friend more interested in making it with Martha than mourning the dead. Daniel thinks the most difficult thing he'll face today is giving his father's eulogy. Of course, that's before a diminutive stranger shows up with a strange demand.
Though his recent directorial credits include the mediocre Bowfinger and The Stepford Wives, Frank Oz is best known for his work with Jim Henson, as puppeteer and collaborator on The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. Given how influential those shows and films were to this young judge, I wanted to enjoy Oz's latest movie. Unfortunately, while his experience working with large casts of outlandish characters is an asset to Death at a Funeral, Oz's talent isn't enough to salvage a script that's as floppy and lifeless as a trunk full of Muppets.
It's not that Death at a Funeral is terrible. There's a certain deftness to the way Oz corrals his cast and holds the various plot threads aloft until the moment they all come together. But Death at a Funeral is a textbook example of "all style, no substance." The film has a good rhythm, tight structure, and the right level of polish—it just isn't very funny.
The film's biggest "jokes" rely on set-ups too elaborate to support the juvenile concepts. Take, for instance, the running gag of people accidentally ingesting a highly potent hallucinogen. Even if you accept the idea that the British have no problem taking pills they find on the ground (possibly a side effect of universal health care), the goofy payoffs are predictable at best. There's something to be said for seeing an event as doubly dignified as a British funeral spiral out of control. I just wish the writers had been more creative. It's as though they simply checked items off a list found on the dust jacket of the Big Book of British Farce. Foul-mouthed elderly uncle? Check. Bewildered clergyman? Check. Male nudity? Check. Poop joke? Check. Gay midget blackmailer? Che—OK, wait. That one's new.
Perhaps the worst crime the film commits is wasting its talented cast. Besides familiar faces like Peter Dinklage and Ewen Bremner, there are actors like Alan Tudyk who look vaguely familiar (it wasn't until I checked IMDb later that I realized I knew him from a one-episode appearance as Pastor Veal on Arrested Development). Andy Nyman is particularly memorable as Howard, England's answer to George Costanza. And though she has little more than a cameo, Jane Asher as the grieving widow is worth noting not only for her nearly 70-year acting career, but for having been Paul McCartney's main squeeze for much of the '60s.
Though the film uses the drab palette so common in British cinema, the DVD transfer is a nice one. From the opening title animation to the way the film is edited, there's a high level of polish. The soundtrack has a jaunty Elfman-esque feel that underscores the film's attempt at black humor. My only complaint with the 5.1 surround mix is that there's a significant difference in volume between the score and the dialogue—though it's really only a problem at the beginning of the film.
The extras are commentary-heavy. No interviews. No making-of. Just a short gag reel and two commentaries. The first track is Frank Oz going solo; the other features the trio of Tudyk, Nyman, and writer Dean Craig. Oz does a decent job of filling his time with behind-the-scenes tidbits, including the editing trick of having shot the exteriors on location, but the interiors on a set (a fact he reiterates just about every time someone goes in or out of the house), and Craig has a good time goofing around with the actors—I'm just not sure why they didn't all get together and record a single track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Death at a Funeral is a competent film. It's well-made, well-shot, and well-acted. From a technical perspective, the script's first-, second-, and third-act structure works. I just didn't think it was very funny. Comedy is, of course, subjective. A quick look online shows that plenty of people thought this movie was hysterical. If you still think it sounds interesting, go ahead and rent it.
From its overstuffed cast and outrageous scenarios to an absurd climax that wraps everything up a bit too neatly, Death at a Funeral is a classic farce. Frank Oz is a talented director, and has surrounded himself with talented actors. Unfortunately, what kills Death at a Funeral is a script that falls flat. What few interesting ideas there are get trampled by the hamfisted gags and gross-out "humor." Oh, well. At least it's short.
May I toss the first shovel-full of dirt?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Frank Oz
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