Sunday, April 18, 2010

Death at a Funeral (4.5 out of 5)

A reviewer should never be faced with the feeling that their review requires an apology and yet that’s just the sentiments I am faced with over my thoughts on Death at a Funeral. Nothing about this film should work: it’s a remake of a very very minor British film from 2007 that was directed by Frank Oz (the voice of Miss Piggy), it stars Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan, whose names aren’t exactly associated with measures of cinematic quality and it was directed by Neil Labute who is a brilliant director, writer and playwright, but who usually focuses on dark films (often comedies) and shallow, wounded people. This movie has paycheque written all over it.

But here’s the thing: it’s funny as hell. It not only surpasses the original despite being almost an exact remake, but keeps on going until its memory is completely out of sight. Here’s proof that Godard may have actually been on to something when he said that the best way to criticize a film is to make another one.

Here’s the situation. A man has died and it is the day of his funeral. His family is gathering at his home where Aaron (Rock) is hosting. The eldest son, Aaron is worried that his eulogy will not be sufficient especially under the close scrutiny of those who believe his writer brother Ryan (Lawrence) should be giving it. Also around for the proceedings is the boys’ mother, a cousin played by Avatar’s Zoe Saldana whose father hates her white boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden) and would prefer she ended up with Derek (Luke Wilson) who is there with family friend Norman (Morgan) who is in charge of looking after grumpy old wheelchair-bound Uncle Russell (Danny Glover stealing the show). Also around is Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original) as a man with secrets from the father’s past.

See how they all connect like that? So does Labute who, like a brilliant stagehand orchestrates the ongoing slapstick comedy that arises out of the situation like a master conductor. Although the film forges on at full comedic tilt at all times, with several different subplots taking place around the house within the same temporal space, Labute never loses focus amidst the chaos. We always know that Oscar is in the backyard, Frank is in the guest room, Uncle Russell is in the bathroom, etc, with all of the threads building to an equal pitch so that the film not only stays its course, but never loses its momentum either.

The idea behind the film is that of classic screwball comedy. A man just wants to get through the day with as little problems as possible only to have everything go wrong from the beginning. And that’s the essence of the film’s comedic approach: just one damned thing after the other. That’s appropriate. It’s always better when it feels like funny things are happening as opposed to people trying to be deliberately funny. So Labute and his cast take full measures in pushing this situation to the very brink of its comedic potential. There are things in this movie that are vulgar, tasteless and at least one that is just plain wrong, but oh boy are they all ever funny. There’s something about this cast in this situation under the guidance of such an assured filmmaker that everything just clicks. Sometimes films succeed just on the basis that they find that special cocktail of elements and personalities that just go off and magic is born. That happened last year with The Hangover. Here it is again.

Another interesting aesthetic device that Labute employs is that he films many of the scenes in close-ups. It’s as if he understands the actors are funnier than the actions and so therefore focuses on the actors performing them instead of the gags themselves. That makes sense. Labute makes films about people and how they interact and influence each other. Screwball is such a broad generic convention that it can speak for itself, but by keeping the distance between audience and actor an intimate one, we not only focus on the individual, allowing several quick moments of humanity and sweetness to sneak through, but the comedy is played off of the reaction as much as the act itself. Take the James Marsden character, who gets himself into a predicament too funny to even hint at. The situation is inherently hilarious but the mileage that Labute gets off of Marden’s face is invaluable. Anyone could have filmed this same bit (and Oz did) at a medium or long distance and we would have laughed for a moment and then been tired with it. By keeping us close, Labute keeps our interests vested.

And then the film works because of how completely shameless it is willing to be: how far it is willing to go for a laugh and how many it actually gets in the process because of the strange logic every joke follows. Like The Hangover, there is nothing redeemable about this film: it has nothing to say about death, life, society, race, sex, religion, anything. All it wants is to be funny and it succeeds. I used to think that Neil Labute was only good at making Neil Labute films but with this, Lakeview Terrace and The Wicker Man it turns out he can make good films about just about anything, no apology required.


  1. Okay...see, the trailer spoils most of the things you hint at anyway. Good review, though, can't say I agree very much, but still.

  2. REALLY?!

    Okay, I'll go see it. I was so disgusted at the quick-turnaround remake that I just dismissed it out of hand. And, liking the original, we'll see how it compares. Big fan of Dinklage, though.

  3. I did the same, thinking why is DAF being remade as a black sitcome. Man was I suprised. Dinklage is almost better in this one.