Death at a Funeral
Director : Neil LaBute
Screenplay : Dean Craig
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Chris Rock (Aaron), Martin Lawrence (Ryan), Zoe Saldana (Elaine), James Marsden (Oscar), Tracy Morgan (Norman), Luke Wilson (Derek), Danny Glover (Uncle Russell), Peter Dinklage (Frank), Keith David (Reverend Davis), Loretta Devine (Cynthia), Ron Glass (Duncan), Regina Hall (Michelle), Kevin Hart (Brian), Columbus Short (Jeff), Regine Nehy (Martina)
While Hollywood is notorious for remaking foreign films to fit homegrown expectations--usually under the assumption that, no matter how good the film, American audiences don’t like reading subtitles and watching characters from other cultures unless they’re being viewed through the lens of Western eyes--Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral is still a strange remake given that its source film was British (hence no subtitles), released only three years ago, and directed by the American Frank Oz. And, given that there is no indication in the credits that screenwriter Dean Craig did any serious adapting of his original screenplay and one of the major characters is played by the same actor in both movies, there is little to suggest that there was any real point in remaking it. The only major difference is that the American remake is cast almost entirely with African-American actors, although outside of one crack about a character being upset that another is white when he should be more upset about something else, there are virtually no references to race whatsoever.
Not having seen the British original, I can’t comment on how the two films compare, but I have a hard time imagining that playwright-turned-director Neil LaBute, whose best films also tend to be his most caustic and cynical, hasn’t left something of an imprint on this version. The name of the game here is family tension, many variations of which are brought out when an extended family gathers for a well-appointed home funeral for the family’s patriarch. Things get off to a rocky start when Aaron (Chris Rock), the family’s eldest sibling, notes that the wrong body is inside the coffin (“Are you telling me you think I don’t know my own father?” he growls when the funeral attendant asks him if he’s sure. “You got Jackie Chan in there!”). That problem is quickly solved, by the myriad other issues involved in family members reuniting after a great deal of separation are not so easily surmounted.
First there is the arrival of Aaron’s younger brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a celebrated writer whose success Aaron, an aspiring novelist, deeply envies. Aaron is also perturbed that everyone seems to assume that Ryan will give the eulogy because he’s “the writer,” not to mention the fact that Ryan has stuck him with the entire bill for the funeral because he’s broke (despite flying first class) and spends much of the funeral hitting on his barely-legal cousin (Aaron’s general emasculation is constantly reinforced with comments from his mother about why he hasn’t yet fathered a child). One of the family’s nieces, Elaine (Zoe Saldana), is engaged to a nice, but nervous young man named Oscar (James Marsden) who her father hates, a situation that is greatly exacerbated by the fact that Oscar takes a hallucinogenic right before the funeral thinking it is valium (Marsden, who already perfected the art of stonerism in Pineapple Express, frequently steals the show with his wildly blissed out antics, which culminate in his getting naked and climbing onto the roof). Meanwhile, Elaine is being harassed by her obsessive ex-boyfriend Derek (Luke Wilson), who her father loves, and another family friend (Tracy Morgan) is stuck taking care of the reliably cantankerous Uncle Russell (Danny Glover).
The real hitch, though, is the mysterious presence of Peter Dinklage’s leather clad Frank, whose short stature and white skin can’t help but make him seem a bit conspicuous at the funeral. Turns out he is the dear ol’ dad’s secret gay lover and he wants a fat payday in return for not pulling out sexually explicit photographs in the middle of the funeral. There is more, of course, much more, and the fact that Death at a Funeral manages to go as far as it does in so many directions without spinning wildly out of control is some kind of testament to both LaBute’s simple, but effective direction and the cohesion of the all-star cast.
This is not to say that all of the roles are particularly well cast: You couldn’t do much better than Danny Glover as the bitter old uncle (he’s been complaining about being too old since 1987’s Lethal Weapon), and Martin Lawrence makes a nice return to the big screen with a character who is so casually egocentric that it’s hard not to like him, but Chris Rock feels woefully miscast as the much put-upon, responsible older brother. Rock’s energy requires a better outlet, and the generally sad-sack role of Aaron forces him to continually keep his cool; any sense of about-to-explode rage feels less character-driven and more like the result of trying to keep Rock the actor contained. Otherwise, the film moves along amiably; it’s never dull or unfunny, but its farcical situations never quite gel into something truly hilarious, either, and it has the added burden of getting syrupy at the end as it tries to balance its otherwise salty comedy with a dose of last-minute sweetness. Perhaps something got lost in the translation, however limited.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Screen Gems