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Movie Review: Death at a Funeral

Films opening this week:
Art of the Steal, The - North Park Dipson
Death at a Funeral - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Elmwood, Transit, Galleria, Quaker, Hollywood Regals; Flix
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The - Eastern Hills Dipson
Kick-Ass - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Amherst Dipson; Elmwood, Transit, Galleria, Quaker, Hollywood Regals; Flix; Transit Drive-In

It does not take long to show just how exact Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral remake is to Frank Oz’s original. Right from the opening credits—an animated journey of the hearse bringing the deceased to his home for final goodbyes, altered mainly by being more literal than its abstract cousin—everything is the same. Post-cartoon, however, we get to see some differences. I know that Chris Rock was a driving force in bringing this British comedy to the States, but no matter how hilarious he is on stage—the guy is a comic genius when doing stand-up—he is, unfortunately, a horrible actor. Martin Lawrence is no Shakespearean thespian either, so putting these two as the leads can only spell trouble. It’s a shame, too, since everything that works in the first succeeds here. The cast is fantastic otherwise and probably made me laugh more, but seeing Rock unable to be natural and Lawrence as broad as he’s ever been also reveals the weaknesses.

Here’s the thing: Dean Craig wrote the screenplay for a more reserved and subdued people. British humor will always be subtler, since the joke is often delivered from standard, stoic Brits. Death at a Funeral is not an uproarious comedy; it is very dark towards the middle and deals with family jealousies and eccentric characters that define the word selfish. American humor—especially black humor—is on the nose and in your face. That’s why guys like Rock and Lawrence excel in Hollywood, where it’s more about the joke than the performance. But Craig’s script has a bit more meat than that, and its subplots deserve the care and attention the rest of the cast give it. As for Tracy Morgan? He’s the exception proving the rule. Dude’s so naturally crazy that it works perfectly.

Like its predecessor, the film deals with the death of a large family’s patriarch. There are love triangles involved, squabbles between relatives aplenty, and a mislabeled bottle of Valium containing homemade acid making the rounds throughout the party. Blackmail soon takes over, leads to kidnapping, and then murder. These situations are ripe for comedy, and the physicality of the laughs completely won me over when compared to the quieter moments of Oz’s original.

There really isn’t any other way to review such a faithful adaptation without comparing the two. As far as the film goes, I laughed more during the remake. I don’t think it told the story as well, since this subject matter needs a more deft control in its delivery, but there really is something to loud and obnoxious for eliciting belly laughs. Many actors are more effective—Danny Glover is really funny as old Uncle Russell, adding some pleasure behind the cruelty; Columbus Short is great as Jeff, the pharmacology student who accidentally laced the funeral with hallucinogens; and the interactions between widow (Loretta Devine’s Cynthia) and daughter-in-law (Regina Hall’s Michelle) add a layer that was alluded to in the first, but never acted on.

Peter Dinklage reprises his role and pretty much gives the same performance, and both Zoe Saldana and Ron Glass, as her father, equal the tone and effectiveness of those who came before. James Marsden, filling the large shoes of Alan Tudyk, plays the drugged finance unable to make a good impression. The elasticity of his facial expressions is brilliant as he takes the part ever-so-slightly further, even if the events are exactly the same.

If there is any reason to see the new incarnation rather than its mirror, it has to be Tracy Morgan. Andy Nyman does a good job as the screw-up that means well, but Morgan was born for the part. There really is so much of his “30 Rock” character in this performance—in other words he plays himself—he riffs with the best of them. But seeing him succeed only shows how ineffective Rock and Lawrence are. If anything, the new Death at a Funeral is a good companion piece to the one that came just three years ago. If I were to suggest one or the other, I’d still have to go with the original. But I won’t pass judgment if you decide to forgo accents and enjoy the Americanized version.

Death at a Funeral 6/10

[1] (l to r) Martin Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock star in Screen Gems' comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Photo By: Phil Bray
[2] Zoe Saldana and James Marsden star in Screen Gems' comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Photo By: Phil Bray

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