“Death at a Funeral” is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this century, as surprising, consistent and laugh-out-loud hilarious as any movie in the past 10 years.
The original 2007 version, that is – the one directed by Frank Oz, with a British cast.
The new remake of “Death at a Funeral,” the one with Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and a who’s who of African-American actors – well, that’s another story. I mean, it’s the same story – practically scene for scene. And it’s funny – with a handful of big laughs. But it’s not nearly as funny as the original.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many millions more people will be drawn to this broad, raucous version of Dean Craig’s script (directed, incongruously enough, by misanthropic playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute) than ever saw Oz’s version, which barely cracked the arthouse market. And they’ll laugh hard at surefire jokes involving hallucinogenic drugs, dead bodies, public nudity and poop.
But Labute’s “Death” is the equivalent of one of those Hollywood translations of a Francis Veber farce from the 1980s and 1990s. Veber would craft a weightless French comedy starring, say Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard – and then Hollywood would translate into a ham-handed lump starring, say, Nick Nolte and Martin Short.
Yes, Labute’s “Death” is virtually a photocopy, in terms of the story it tells and the comedy beats it hits. Yet everything in this version is coarser and more obvious, aimed at a lowest-common-denominator audience.
What made the first film funny – aside from an imaginative and jam-packed plot – was the contrast between the repressed British characters and the wildly inappropriate things they were forced to do. These characters were embarrassed at the mere idea of being embarrassed, which added a layer of humor that this version lacks. The British characters’ fear of being discovered and their horror at having to commit various acts seemed to multiply geometrically; the more outlandish the plot got, the more laughs there were.
But while the action of this comedy is still outrageous, there’s very little distance between who the characters are at the beginning of the film and who they are forced to become under extraordinary circumstances. Yes, there’s the fear of discovery – but there’s not the added level of delicious embarrassment inherent in the nature of British reserve. None of these characters is a shrinking violet who considers raising his voice to be the height of bad behavior, let alone committing murder or coping with dead bodies. Instead, they’re all seemingly on a hair-trigger to get in someone else’s face. Which can be funny, but is wrong for this particular story.
Labute has even gone so far as to retain Peter Dinklage to play the character around whom much of the plot revolves. He’s Frank, a guy unknown to brothers Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, who have gathered (with their family) for the funeral of their late father. Frank pulls Rock (as the staid tax accountant son) aside and reveals that, in fact, he and Rock’s father were lovers (complete with snapshots of the two of them in drag at the premiere of “Dreamgirls”). And he wants money to keep quiet about it.
The various other subplots remain untouched as well. There’s Zoe Saldana as the dead man’s niece; her stuffy father (Ron Glass) disapproves of her boyfriend (James Marsden), which makes Marsden so nervous that Saldana feeds him a Valium – which turns out to be a hallucinogen instead. There’s Luke Wilson as Saldana’s former beau, who’s hoping to rekindle their spark at the funeral. Tracy Morgan plays a friend of Rock and Lawrence, a hypochondriac who gets stuck tending to Rock’s cranky old uncle (Danny Glover).
The ensemble nature of the film means there’s not too much of any of these performers and some of them acquit themselves nicely (including Columbus Short, as Saldana’s brother, who put the hallucinogens in the Valium bottle; and Keith David, as the minister who made a special effort to do the funeral, for the chance to meet Lawrence, whose character is a best-selling author).
You’ll either howl with laughter or have your gag-reflex triggered in the poop scene. But as sure-fire a laugh (for me, at least) as that moment is, Labute even overdoes that.
In the original, an actor named Andy Nyman played the hypochondriac character whose horror at coming into contact with even a speck of excrement – let alone a dollop – was hilarious. But Morgan’s persona here is virtually indistinguishable from anything else he’s done – always seemingly on the verge of hysterics – and then Labute virtually smears him with the dreaded stuff. Who wouldn’t scream? The audience I saw it with sounded like a room full of air-raid sirens – they were whooping that loudly as it unfolded. And yet…
The new “Death at a Funeral” essentially confirmed what I suspected, based on the commercials: that everything that was meticulously etched in the original would be scrawled in crayon in this version. To which a friend said, “Sure – but how many people even saw the original?”
Which is what’s wrong with the world – but that’s a lament for another day.