A REMAKE IS USUALLY based on a movie that has had both the merit and the time to become a classic. Neither is the case with Neil LaBute's new flick, Death at a Funeral. The slapstick comedy is based on a largely forgotten movie that came out only three years ago, directed by Frank Oz.
Despite flouting remake conventions, it's worth a watch. Frank Oz's 2007 version is a British farce in which a decorous family funeral is upset by a series of bizarre circumstances: the accidental ingestion of hallucinogens, the loose bowels of an old man, and a blackmailing gay midget, for instance. LaBute's recent effort follows the original plot closely and even features the same actor--the talented Peter Dinklage--as the midget. But this time around, the comedy is looser, louder, and well, less British.
Death begins with Aaron (Chris Rock) preparing for the funeral of his father. The inept funeral directors bring in a coffin bearing the wrong body. In the original version, the son (played by Matthew Macfadyen) says in somber, funereal fashion, "That's not my father." Not surprisingly, Rock's rendition is a little less subdued. "This ain't Burger King," he yells. "You can't mess up my order!"
The rest of the movie takes on the same tone, and as long as you're not holding out for highbrow humor, it's consistently funny. (A recent showing got so much laughter from the audience that several punch lines were lost.) Tracy Morgan, as a not-very-welcome guest, is his usual unpredictable, hilarious self and Martin Lawrence is serviceable as Aaron's cocky brother with the successful writing career. But James Marsden—best known for his role as Cyclops in the X-Men movies—gets the most laughs. Marsden plays Oscar, the fiancée of Aaron's cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana). He accidentally ingests a homemade hallucinogen thinking it's valium, and spends the rest of the funeral blissfully tripping, to the chagrin of most everyone else. As the movie comes to a climax, he's sitting on the roof naked, making faces to himself, and happily smacking his knees together.
The lack of three-dimensional or even just mildly funny female characters is annoying, and any movie with a gay midget is going to offend people. The short jokes and homoerotic humor in Death do get tiresome. (But don't go blaming any of that on a tendency toward homophobia in African-American movies. The lily-white original is full of gay jokes, too.) The movie's toilet humor will displease some viewers as well, especially one scene--here's a good time to put down the popcorn--featuring an old man's diarrhea and Morgan's face.
All that aside, the movie is totally enjoyable after a long, hard day. Death at a Funeral isn't quite comedy that kills, but any opportunity to see Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock onscreen together is not to be missed.