REVIEW: Death at a Funeral [2007]

“My father was an exceptional man”

And now it takes just three years for a remake of an English language film, that stays in its native language, to happen. Chris Rock may have gotten Neil Labute—it appears he has assimilated into the Hollywood machine for good now—to direct a new version, from the same screenwriter no less, but it is Frank Oz’s British Death at a Funeral that came first. Don’t be afraid of the accents and give the original a shot. I’ll admit that it gets pretty dark there for a little while, almost so much that I felt uncomfortable with the direction it was headed, but things soon work themselves out to stay light. A black comedy in the vein of Very Bad Things—where the absurdity stays rooted in realism more or less—this film compiles an all-star ensemble cast and keeps its audience on their toes for the duration. Dysfunctional families are one thing, add some hallucinogenics, a few untimely secrets, and the jealousy only harbored by siblings and you get an even bigger monster.

The patriarch has passed away and the family has all gathered at his old residence for one last goodbye. Family and friends have come from all over world, each for their own selfish reasons, and fortunately for us have brought all their troubles with them. Daniel, the eldest son, has been taking care of his parents with his wife, forgoing his future to be the good son and attempt writing a novel. His brother Robert, the published and acclaimed author of the group, arrives from NYC with stories of over-priced first class tickets and the inability to fork over his half of the funeral costs. But these brothers and their money woes are the least of anyone’s concern, especially when their cousin Martha is about to introduce her boyfriend as her fiancé—a man high as a kite with an accidental intake of pills that were not valium—to the father that disapproves. So between Simon wigging out or falling asleep, Uncle Alfie hitting people with his cane and swearing at everyone, Justin trying to get back with Martha after one drunken night years before, and a stranger in Peter, who is somehow friends with the deceased yet unknown to everyone, that’s looking to open up a whole other can of worms, you’ll be sitting back and enjoying the show.

One thing about British comedy is the inherent British-ness of the actors. For some reason English residents always appear proper and dignified, whether it be the accent we are made to stereotype at a young age in America, what with the history of royalty, or the stoic demeanor when anyone else would be uncontrollable with emotion, that attitude is always ripe for humor. So when you have a guy like Simon—played by the hilarious Alan Tudyk, going all out for this role and laying it all bare, figuratively and literally—off his rocker, screaming that the coffin is moving, the reactions of the rest of the family, faces like morticians, becomes the bigger joke. The straight-faced reactions make the outrageous seem even more so, garnering a bigger laugh as a result because their horror is our laughter. When blackmail, kidnapping, and murder come into play, however, I will admit that the smiles quickly fade; the setting of a funeral and people in mourning make it hard to keep those subjects from making the depression even worse. Thankfully, while all the serious stuff occurs, Tudyk is always there to take off his clothes and threaten to jump of the roof, helping us all remember the farce that is really occurring.

The script has some very witty lines, allowing it to even make excrement funny somehow, but I do believe that there would be very little without the performances. While Tudyk is by far the most zany and noticeable of the group, so many others work their magic in more subtle ways—Andy Nyman, as a friend named Howard, is a neurotic attending almost so he can feel part of a community while his obsessive tendencies keep him at arm’s length from all; Ewen Bremner’s Justin is pure sleaze looking to hookup with an unavailable woman at her uncle’s funeral; Daisy Donovan is completely relatable as Martha, doing her best to keep her fiancé’s drug mishap under wraps while staying sane herself; Kris Marshall’s Troy, the amateur druggist, delivers plenty of laughter as he tries to cover his out butt, constantly losing the elicit bottle of pills; and Peter Vaughan’s Uncle Alfie is the epitome of crotchety old man, kind of like the Major in “Soap” only mean rather than confused. Diminutive Peter Dinklage plays the wildcard newcomer, sticking out like a sore thumb both from his height and everyone’s lack of knowing who he is. The catalyst for so much of what happens in the final two-thirds of the film, his charm and soft-spoken tone disarms you even when you discover his intentions. He enjoyed the role so much that he is returning as the same character in the remake—definitely a plus in that film’s favor.

It all really comes down to the brothers though. Rupert Graves is fantastic as the celebrity of the family, that star back in America who has decided to grace the rest with his appearance after many years. His Robert is the complete opposite of Matthew Macfadyen’s Daniel who is trying to give his father a good send off, but is constantly thwarted in his attempts as the entire funeral implodes around him. You can see the mutual respect they have for each other, but the competitive nature and jealousies between them are what bubble to the surface. Daniel idolizes the fame Robert achieved in a field he wishes to break into while the younger brother sees how much he missed by being away, never being able to get that time back with his father now that he’s gone. So, the story may be about a funeral and it may be about these brothers discovering how much they have in common once the mirror is held up to the other, but do not discount the side-plots occurring on the fringes. Every character is just as important as the next and able to steal the show with a well-timed line or physical gag. Death at a Funeral may not be the greatest comedy out there, although it is an effective one. You’ll definitely think about your own family while watching the events on screen—hopefully not the really bad stuff though.

Death at a Funeral 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Martha (Daisy Donovan) and Simon (Alan Tudyk) in Death at a Funeral – 2007
[2] L to R: Andy Nyman as Howard, Rupert Graves as Robert, Peter Dinklage as Peter and Matthew Macfadyen as Daniel in Death at a Funeral


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