Directed by: Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man)
Starring: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Danny Glover, Tracy Morgan
Against the odds, I held out hope for Neil LaBute’s remake of Death at a Funeral. I really thought this might surprise me—and I suppose it did, because I never thought it would be as bad as it is. At worst, I thought it would be magnificently unnecessary. Instead, I found it painfully unfunny and tedious. Would I have found it less so had I not seen the Frank Oz 2007 original from Great Britain? That’s hard to say. I might have found it funnier, but I think I would have still gotten tired of it all being pitched in one key.
Part of the problem with this Death at a Funeral lies with the fact that it begs to be compared with the 2007 film. After all, it’s virtually a scene-for-scene remake. Producer Chris Rock’s idea seems to have been that the material could be effectively transported to Los Angeles and African-Americanized. That doesn’t sound unreasonable on the surface, but seeing it in action is another matter. The trouble begins at the very outset. The new version reproduces the scene where the wrong body is delivered to the house for the funeral. It’s a nice little opening gag that serves as part of the buildup to the farce this solemn occasion will soon become. However, the tone in this film is immediately wrong. Rock cracks wise about the decidedly Asian corpse that’s been delivered (“You brought me Jackie Chan”) and complains that this isn’t Burger King—you can’t just apologize for getting the order wrong. It’s mildly amusing, but it’s trying too hard.
What makes the original work is, in part, the setting. It works because it takes place among very proper, very stiff-necked upper-class Brits. The whole film is predicated on the idea that everything that goes wrong is a huge social embarrassment. The characters don’t make wisecracks. Instead, they make do. They muddle through and try to put the best face on that they can while the situation quickly spins out of control. The family in the original keep their tensions to themselves as much as possible—with only the occasional well-aimed barb poking through. Here, we land in a realm of chaos and open in-fighting (as opposed to simmering resentment) that has apparently been going on long before the loved one shuffled off his mortal coil. The film never really spirals out of control, because things were out of control to start with. It only becomes more frenetic, which often feels like desperation.
The original also benefits from being more of an ensemble work. Whereas, the new film shoehorns established celebrities like Rock, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Luke Wilson etc. into the proceedings and tries to afford each one some kind of spotlight bit or other. That might be nice for the performers, but it does little for the film itself. In the original, the closest thing to a celebrity turn was Peter Vaughan (well-known in the UK) as Uncle Alfie, which here becomes Glover’s Uncle Russell. One difference is immediately apparent: The 83-year-old Vaughan in the 2007 version embodies the cantankerous, out-of-it old geezer, while the 63-year-old Danny Glover comes across as Danny Glover playing “old.” The thing is I like Chris Rock, Danny Glover, James Marsden and sometimes Luke Wilson. They just don’t work for me here.
The person who comes off best in the film is Peter Dinklage, which isn’t too surprising since he’s simply reprising his role from the original—albeit with the character name changed from Peter to Frank for no discernible reason. Dinklage is a naturally charismatic actor—and not just because he’s a 4-foot-5-inch man. From the moment he made his movie debut as the ill-tempered dwarf cast to appear in a dream sequence in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995) (“Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who has had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them”), he’s done nothing but enliven any movie he’s appeared in. Even here, doing the same part over again, this holds true. When he’s on-screen, the film is just better.
Unfortunately, this Death at a Funeral can’t manage to pull off its central premise—how to deal with dead Dad’s blackmailing gay boyfriend—without managing to seem homophobic. In both the original film and here, the shock of this discovery—based on the artwork in Dad’s study—seems a bit of a stretch. But somehow—perhaps because so much of the panic stems from a desire to keep the widow from knowing—the original version manages to navigate this with relative grace. Here, there’s a heavy and unpleasant reliance on the “Ewww” factor.
In the end, I simply found the remake tedious and wrongheaded. Since it adheres so slavishly to the original in terms of plotting, there are never any surprises. Instead, you just wait to check off the events as you go down the list. If you’ve never seen the original, you might find viewing this film a better experience, but you’d be better off with the DVD of Oz’s movie. Rated R for language, drug content and some sexual humor.