Movie Review: Death at a Funeral
By Matthew Huntley
August 22, 2007
Death at a Funeral takes what might have been funny as a half-hour sitcom and expands it into a 90-minute feature. Once you realize its jokes can only go so far, you catch the movie running around in circles and draining itself of every amusing element. Here is a comedy, supposedly, that's complacent with relooping just when it should be progressing towards something new.
Trying desperately to be compared to Four Weddings and a Funeral, "Death" is another British comedy about a solemn requiem that goes extraordinarily awry. Unfortunately, hilarity doesn't enuse. It just sort of escapes out the back door.
The guest of honor is an old man survived by his wife (Jane Asher) and two sons, Daniel (Matthew MacFayden) and Robert (Rupert Graves), plus many other wacky friends and relatives. Poor Daniel is the overseer of the ceremony and feels nervous about giving the eulogy. It doesn't help that everyone expected Robert, who's a successful pop novelist living in New York City, to write it.
Daniel also has the unfortunate duty of telling the funeral parlor they delivered the wrong bloody corpse! Could the day get any worse? You betcha.
Okay, the beginning and setup are funny enough, but after the movie introduces all its characters and their eccentric idiosyncracies, it descends into a series of bumbling clichés and grows increasingly frustrating to watch. I kept counting the number of times characters enter and exit a room. Doors are constantly opening and shutting in this movie, and not in any funny way, but the kind where you want to yell out, "Sit down already!" It's like watching neurotics pace back and forth aimlessly with no hopes of a punchline.
Unfortunately, Dean Craig's screenplay seems to be the problem. The situations he presents have been done better before. Here, they're not so funny. For a movie trying to be an outrageous ensemble piece, it offers little in the way of original surprises and twists.
To give you an idea: Martha (Daisy Donovan), niece of the deceased, is going to the funeral with her fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk). Simon feels under the weather, so Martha gives him a valium from her brother Troy's (Kris Marshall) apartment, only it's not valium. It's acid, or some kind of hallucinogenic drug. And so Simon becomes spaced out, loopy and paranoid, going so far as to yell at the coffin.
As I watched these scenes play out, I couldn't help but think of the age-old sitcom moment when laughing gas is turned on in a dentist's office and the patient starts acting playful and goofy. This type of comedy may have been funny some time ago, or perhaps now if presented freshly, but here it feels desperate and flat.
Another subplot involves Daniel and Robert paying off a strange man (Peter Dinklage) who claims to have been their father's lover. He even has the pictures to prove it and asks for 15,000 pounds to stay quiet, which leads to a wrestling match and tie-up similar to Peter Berg's bizarre Very Bad Things.
What's most discouraging about the movie is its need to fill all the characters in on what's going on. Each character has his or her own conflict that we, the audience, know about, but not all the other characters do, and the movie actually takes the time to bring them up to speed with dialogue and in real time. Not only does this make the movie tedious and dull, but it's also a sign of the filmmakers' lack of faith in the audience. This movie needs to be recut so we join the characters after they're informed of
what we already know.
Plus, the movie suffers from a case of character overload, with Andy Nyman and Ewen Bremner as friends of the family who don't really add to the story. Nyman plays Howard, a nervous fellow who freaks out about a skin pigmentation and gets stuck caring for the the incorrigible Uncle Alfie (Paul Vaughan). Bremner is Justin, whose one-night stand with Martha makes him believe he can romanticize her at the funeral. Nothing against the actors, but the presence of their characters don't really add up to much.
The movie has been directed by Frank Oz, who made the great Bowfinger and amusing In & Out. Here, he seems to have lowered his standards and presents a forgettable farce that doesn't really go anywhere special. I thought it might end on a high emotional note, but even Daniel's speech at the end, which is supposed to be a lesson and awakening to all those listening, says what we knew all along. It's not terribly witty, incisive or meaningful.
During the closing credits, a gag reel plays that shows each member of the cast laughing during their takes. All I could think was that at least someone laughed during this movie. The cast and filmmakers obviously had a fun time making "Death at a Funeral." Too bad the same cannot be said for those who end up watching it.