'Funeral' Is DOA
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It looks pretty odd on paper: a remake of a 2007 British farce about family dysfunction, blackmail, and unwitting consumption of hallucinogens during a rite of mourning, transposed to an affluent African-American milieu, gifted with an all-star cast headed by co-producer Chris Rock, and directed by that maestro of twisted-up misanthropy, Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors," et al). It's true, weirder things have happened in cinema; for instance, back in the '80s, brat-pack princess Molly Ringwald found herself acting in a Jean-Luc Godard film that also featured short turns by Woody Allen and Norman Mailer. A LaBute/Rock team-up isn't as peculiar as it might seem at first; Rock has shown genuine ambition and eclectic tastes in his recent film projects, even adapting (sort of) a film by New Wave nuance-master Eric Rohmer, for the project "I Think I Love My Wife." And, as it turns out, this rethink of the first "Death at a Funeral," a fleet if inconsequential laughfest directed by Frank Oz, isn't notably oddball or edgy by any standard. Too bad it isn't notably good, either.
Rock plays the thoroughly put-upon Aaron, who's made a respectable and responsible life for himself and his eager-to-procreate wife Michelle (Regina Hall), while his brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence) has earned fame and (presumably) fortune churning out potboiler novels from his new home in New York. Tensions between the brothers -- for, you see, Aaron himself entertained authorial ambitions, but was constrained by both shyness and, you know, being respectable and responsible -- are of course bound to flare up at the held-in-the-(gorgeous)-ancestral-home funeral of their father. But other complications compete in the conspiracy to turn this ostensibly mournful occasion into a circus. There's cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), whose white fiancé Oscar (James Marsden), who's despised by her dad Duncan (Ron Glass), inadvertently ingests a pill prepared for recreational purposes by Elaine's feckless dealer brother Jeff (Columbus Short). Said pill compelling poor Oscar to act like the biggest jackass at Woodstock while everyone else is trying to be tearful. There's Derek (Luke Wilson), a smarmy ex of Elaine's who sees an opportunity in Oscar's unwitting bad behavior, while his pal Norman (Tracy Morgan), a family friend, has his hands full dealing with dyspeptic, crapulent, wheelchair bound Uncle Russell (Danny Glover). And, not quite finally but most crucially, there's Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the first version), a wee but strangely intimidating fellow claiming to be a friend of the deceased who brings with him a secret and a demand that will send the already-reeling family members into fully-realized lunacy, of a sort.
Dean Craig's rewrite of his own screenplay switches particular details, and ups the gross-out humor; a scene in which Norman escorts an incontinent Uncle Russell to the bathroom goes exactly where many would hope it wouldn't, and then further still. And while the comic performers assembled here have sufficient energy and chops that it would have been impossible for them not to produce some laughs, this is largely a bumpy botch. First off, it's hard as hell on the eyes; cinematographer Rogier Stoffers has done some handsome work in the past, but the picture here alternates between overbright and muddy and has a persistent digital sheen. And while Rock is, and has always been, an exceptionally gifted comedian and broad comic actor, he remains hopeless in more dramatic contexts, and he's almost painful to watch (stiff, stilted, unengaged) in the early expository scenes. As for Lawrence, he gets very little opportunity to strut the outrageous stuff that made him famous, and seeing him here makes one wonder if a reined-in Lawrence is any kind of Lawrence at all. Only Marsden, Dinklage, and Morgan (who for some reason seems able to do no wrong lately) give engagingly seamless performances from start to finish, with the first clearly having a blast as he alternates flower-power bliss-outs with paranoid freakouts.
But the final fault lies with LaBute, an artist I largely admire but who hasn't been able to catch (or give himself) a break with his past few films. While he certainly doesn't set out to transform his material (I believe I recognized several camera setups identical to ones in the original film), it's clear right off the bat that he has no inherent feel for either the tone or the pace appropriate for farce. And so, while the film clocks in at about the same 90 minute running time as the original (by my watch it was several minutes shorter, in fact), this version feels longer. It's logy, clumsy; instead of lifting the viewer up and carrying him or her on constant currents of escalating comic velocity, it lumbers from bit to bit, and the waits for funny stuff can seem endless. Relatively early on in the film, Glover is heard muttering his signature line from the "Lethal Weapon" franchise, the rather apt, "I'm too old for this s---." It should be a big laugh line, but the film simultaneously throws it away and buries it. For a minute I wondered if this gesture was somehow not a sign of ineptitude, but an emblem of some misplaced integrity. Didn't take me much longer to figure out which.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and Web sites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.