Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review - Death at a Funeral

Frank Oz's Death at a Funeral had a potentially funny premise that was ruined by shoddy execution, so it's most disheartening to see this remake taking the same script and making the same basic errors with it. It seems that Chris Rock, who initiated this new version, thought the only thing that was wrong with the original was the fact that it wasn't quite hysterical and frantic enough. As a result, this take on the film sees a (mostly) new cast being asked to go through the same laboured situations, but to pitch it at a higher volume, as if loudness itself was the key to unlocking the nuggets of comedy gold hiding within. It doesn't pay off, and all we're left with is a tiresome retread of a movie that wasn't any good in the first place.

It has only been three years since Oz's film briefly appeared in cinemas, but when I tried to recall it prior to writing this review my mind mostly drew a blank. From what I can recall, this is pretty much a scene-for-scene remake, with entire plot being reheated and presented intact. The funeral of the title is for the father of Aaron (Chris Rock), who is beside himself trying to organise the day's events while his shrewish wife Cynthia (Loretta Devine) pesters him for a baby. The problems begin with a coffin mix-up that leads to some other corpse being delivered in his father's place, and when that hiccup has been dealt with, a pair of outsiders are responsible for the mayhem that subsequently ensues. Oscar (James Marsden) is the fiancé of Elaine (Zoe Saldana), and when he mistakes a bottle of hallucinogenic pills for valium he becomes a walking disaster zone. The other intruder on the family's grief is Frank (Peter Dinklage), who claims to know the dead man and who threatens to reveal some disconcerting secrets about him unless he receives a hefty payoff.

Aside from Dinklage – who plays the same role, albeit a little more aggressively – the cast here is entirely new, and it's filled with people who can be funny. Unfortunately, Chris Rock is effectively acting as the straight man here, a role that always leads to him giving a stiff and awkward turn, and Tracy Morgan's appearance only serves to underline just how reliant he is on Tina Fey's brilliant writing in 30 Rock. The only winner here is James Marsden, who has a lot of fun with his blissfully spaced-out role, while everyone else flounders with the thin characterisations and meagre material.

The key problem with Death at a Funeral – and one that crippled the original – is that Dean Craig's script is too obvious and schematic, and it never achieves the pace or sustained madness of high farce. Quite how the hiring of Neil LaBute (a filmmaker hardly known for possessing the Lubitsch touch) was supposed to remedy this fault is unclear, and the only real differences I can spot between this version and Oz's film is a greater emphasis on gay panic jokes, which hardly counts as a development. The comic set-pieces all occur in the same places – a naked man on the roof, a group of men wrestling a dwarf – and they all work about as well as they did before. One of the film's signature scenes sees an unfortunate soul getting his hand trapped underneath an old man (Danny Glover) as the latter takes a shit, and as I watched this I felt a sense of despair at having witnessed such a scene not once but twice. "I'm too old for this shit," Glover grumbles, and we're supposed to chuckle at the reference, but I just felt like nodding my head and saying, "So am I, Danny, so am I." Life is too short for bad comedies, and it's certainly too short to watch a comedy die twice.