Judge Clark Douglas wants to be buried next to a good conversationalist.
"Can we please get started?"
Facts of the Case
An elderly man has just passed away. Now the task of eulogizing that man falls upon Aaron (Chris Rock, Head of State), the man's oldest son. Aaron is nervous about handling this task, particularly since everyone at the funeral will be expecting Aaron's brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence, Blue Streak), a very successful author, to be handling the speeches. Also in attendance at the funeral:
Derek (Luke Wilson, Bottle Rocket), Norman's close friend and Elaine's former boyfriend.
Michelle (Regina Hall, The Honeymooners), Aaron's currently ovulating wife. Why mention such a fact? She's desperate to have a baby; nearly as desperate as Aaron's mother (Loretta Devine, Spring Breakdown) is to have a grandchild.
Jeff (Columbus Short, Cadillac Records), who makes the huge mistake of putting some hallucinogenic pills in a bottle marked "Valium."
Frank (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent), a little person with a very big secret.
Reverend Davis (Keith David, Coraline), who desperately attempts to maintain a sense of order throughout the hectic funeral proceedings.
These characters and others are thrown together into a wild ride of chaos, blackmail, misunderstandings and mishaps over the course of one insane day. Will everyone survive the funeral?
I feel bad for Neil Labute. After some generally well-regarded (if mean-spirited) early cinematic outings like In the Company of Men, Labute has attempted a series of experiments that have gone over like a mouse at an elephant party. His beautiful Nurse Betty was dismissed by many as a mess, his gleefully satirical The Wicker Man was taken at face value, and his subversive Lakeview Terrace was flat-out loathed by most critics. Perhaps it's just me, but I've always seen more going on beneath the surface of Labute's films than is immediately obvious…until now, anyway. As far as I can tell, Labute's remake of Death at a Funeral is a simple, straight-forward comedy designed for no other purpose than to give viewers a few chuckles and send them home with a smile.
I still haven't seen the 2007 Death at a Funeral, but the general consensus is that the film is a dryly amusing charmer. The new Death at a Funeral is amusing too, albeit in a rather broad and overtly wacky manner. Comic set pieces involving funerals have appeared in more than a few African-American comedies in recent years, and Death at a Funeral essentially extends one of those set pieces to feature length.
Indeed, as the film begins we feel as if we're in the middle of a film rather than at the beginning. We're not sure of who everyone is, what their relationships are in relation to the other characters, or how they knew the person being buried. For that matter, we don't know much of anything about the deceased, either. Some of this information becomes available to us as needed over the course of the film, but some of it doesn't. Our impressions of these people are formed entirely based on how they behave in this particular place at this particular time. This doesn't bode too well for Oscar, who is given a hallucinogenic at the beginning of the film that doesn't wear off until the end.
There are a lot of talented folks in the cast of Death at a Funeral, some of whom are asked to provide their distinct comic voice to the mix while others are asked to provide a particular sort of presence. This means that while Tracy Morgan provides off-the-wall ramblings and Luke Wilson indulges in a series of sad-sack quips, Ron Glass sternly harrumphs in the corner while Keith David continuously scowls and throws his hands up in the air. Danny Glover indulges in an endless stream of foul-mouthed mutterings, usually thrown in Morgan's direction. Morgan and Glover are two of the most eccentric and unpredictable performers in the film, so their scenes together are mostly entertaining. I could have done without the one where Morgan gets Glover's diarrhea all over himself, through. The silliest role goes to Marsden, who spends a considerable portion of the film running on a rooftop without any clothes on. Marsden seems to be a good sport about all of this.
Though the film is very much an ensemble piece, I suppose it could be said that Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence are essentially the leads of the film (their screen time isn't vastly larger than anyone else's, but the film's final scenes focus on them). Lawrence offers a variation on the role he played in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, that of the arrogant rich relative who has finally returned home after being gone for an extended period of time. The difference is that he was loathed by his family in that film and he's adored by his family in this one. That adoration gets on the nerves of Rock's character, a serious-minded individual that allows Rock to play it straight. The "center of gravity" role actually suits Rock quite well, as he convincingly depicts the weariness and stress of having to be the sane member of the family. Rock and Lawrence spend a good deal of their screen time interacting with Peter Dinklage, who also appeared in the original film. This time, Dinklage plays a character who happens to have some very intriguing information about the deceased. The trailers freely gave this away; but I wouldn't spoil it for you. The film spends too much time carefully building up to the punch line (though the trailers fortunately don't reveal what happens after Dinklage's secret is unleashed).
The DVD transfer gets the job done nicely, with considerable detail and depth. This is a visually bright and colorful film, with lots of bold tones contrasting nicely against the more reserved palette of the funeral home. The audio is solid as well, though sometimes the score seems dialed down a bit more than would be expected. This isn't really a problem though, as Christophe Beck's wacky sax efforts don't really do much to enhance the proceedings. Extras include a nice commentary with Labute and Rock, some deleted scenes, outtakes and a handful of complete insubstantial featurettes: "Death at a Funeral: Last Rites," "Dark Secrets," "Family Album," and "Death for Real."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's third act is meant to be the grand, comedic finale that pays off on all the set-up, but I actually found much of the set-up to be more entertaining. The last act just gets too overcooked for my liking, and you can see the film's final punch line coming about twenty minutes in advance of its arrival. Additionally, there's one missing element that I think deserved to be addressed in a more substantial manner: grief. Despite the constant reassurance that the deceased was a very good man that many people loved, there aren't many tears shed at this funeral. When the words "I'm grieving," are uttered, it's generally as a joke. The only person who seems genuinely distressed is the widow played by Loretta Devine, but even her tears are played for laughs. I realize that too much emotion might have weighted down the comedy, but its near-complete absence makes the film feel a bit hollow.
Trivial but engaging, Death at a Funeral isn't so much a laugh riot as a smile-inducing bit of fun. Even so, I liked the film well enough. Worth a rental.
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