“Always thought he had a little sugar in his tank”
It does not take long to show just how exact a remake Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral is compared to Frank Oz’s original. Right from the opening credits, an animated journey of the hearse bringing the deceased to his home for final goodbyes, altered mainly by being more literal than its abstract cousin, everything is just as it was. Once the cartoon fades away to leave reality beneath, however, we get to see just where the differences lie. I know that Chris Rock was a driving force in bringing this British comedy to the States, but no matter how hilarious he is on stage—the guy is a comic genius when doing stand-up—he unfortunately is a horrible actor. Martin Lawrence is no Shakespearean thespian either, so putting these two as the leads can only spell trouble. It’s a shame too since everything that works in the first succeeds here; the cast is fantastic otherwise and probably made me laugh more, but seeing Rock unable to be natural and Lawrence as broad as he’s ever been also reveals the weaknesses.
Here’s the thing, Dean Craig wrote the screenplay for a more reserved and subdued people. British humor will always be subtler since it lies behind the stoic folk delivering the lines. Death at a Funeral is not an uproarious comedy; it is very dark towards the middle and deals with family jealousies and eccentric characters that define the word selfish. American humor—especially black humor—is on the nose and in your face. That’s why guys like Rock and Lawrence excel in Hollywood when it’s more about the joke than the performance. Craig’s script has a bit more meat than that, though, and its subplots deserve the care and attention the rest of the cast gives it. Whereas the two brothers burying their father are doing their best to squeeze a laugh out of the audience, the rest of the ensemble is letting the words do the talking in order for us to see the execution and progression to make a well-orchestrated joke work. You may be asking where Tracy Morgan fits in all this and my only answer would be that he’s the exception proving the rule. Dude’s so naturally crazy that it works perfectly.
Like its predecessor, the film deals with the death of a large family’s patriarch. His two sons are writers—one extremely successful who’s appearance is the first back home in years while the other a failure that has been taking care of their parents—his one brother a doctor while another a cranky old-timer in a nursing home, the friends and cousins a mixture of oddities, and an old, anonymous friend lurks in the fringes. There are love triangles involved, squabbles between relatives aplenty, and a mislabeled bottle of Valium containing homemade acid making the rounds throughout the party. Blackmail soon takes over, leads to kidnapping, and then murder, (yes, the ‘death’ of the title is actually at the funeral, not the subject of it). These situations are ripe for comedy and the physicality of the laughs completely won me over when compared to the quieter moments of Oz’s original. Rather than letting lines sink in as people look at each other in shock, the actors here go full bore by allowing their reactions to be large and loud. American humor lets two guys toss a little person behind a couch, it revels in poop jokes and lets them span a much longer duration, and has no qualms whatsoever when it comes to swearing left and right if the situation is too much to bear.
There really isn’t any other way to review such a faithful adaptation without comparing the two. As far as the film goes, I didn’t lie that I laughed more during the remake. I don’t think it told the story as well, since this subject matter needs a more deft control in its delivery, but there really is something to loud and obnoxious for eliciting belly laughs. Many actors are more effective—Danny Glover is really funny as old Uncle Russell, adding some pleasure behind the cruelty, enjoying the suffering he instills in others; Columbus Short is great as Jeff, the pharmacology student who accidentally laced the funeral with hallucinogens, and more relatable as the college kid living life than his British counterpart; and the interactions between widow, (Loretta Devine’s Cynthia), and daughter-in-law, (Regina Hall’s Michelle), add a layer that was alluded to in the first, but never acted on. Peter Dinklage puts on the same performance he did before, (still crazy that he reprises his role here), and both Zoe Saldana and Ron Glass, as her father, equal the tone and effectiveness of those who came before. James Marsden, filling the large shoes of Alan Tudyk, plays the drugged finance unable to make a good impression. The elasticity of his facial expressions is brilliant as he takes the part ever so slightly further, even if the events are exactly the same.
If there is any reason to see the new incarnation rather than its mirror, it has to be Tracy Morgan. Andy Nyman does a good job as the screw-up that means well, but Morgan was born for the part. There really is so much of his “30 Rock” character in this performance—in other words he plays himself—as he riffs with the best of them. I have to believe his stall tactics with Keith David’s Reverend were completely improvised; who else could come up with stories of stripper angels as his reason for needing to confess? And seeing him succeed—for all intents and purposes a non-actor too—only hinders Rock and Lawrence from ever being effective. Here are two guys that could go off-the-wall also, yet must stay reined in to do the story justice as ‘responsible’ adults. It may fall on Craig’s shoulders for not changing the script enough to utilize their talents, or on Rock himself for not realizing his dramatic chops aren’t good enough to carry it, but enough jokes hit to still allow the film to be relevant. If anything, the new Death at a Funeral is a good companion piece to the one that came three short years ago. If I were to suggest one for its quality as a film, I’d still have to go with the original. I won’t pass judgment though if you decide to forgo accents and enjoy the more Americanized version.
Death at a Funeral 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
 (l to r) Martin Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock star in Screen Gems’ comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Photo By: Phil Bray
 Zoe Saldana and James Marsden star in Screen Gems’ comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Photo By: Phil Bray