Death at a Funeral
British-bred comedy of manners is amusing, but wants to be hilarious
By Devin D. O’Leary
Death at a Funeral
Directed by Frank Oz
Cast: Matthew MacFadyen, Peter Dinklage, Rupert Graves
Funerals aren’t inherently funny. But if you throw enough toilet humor, hallucinogenic drugs and naughty innuendo at them, they might be. That seems to be the prevailing attitude behind Death at a Funeral, a quaintly crude British comedy that isn’t all that funny, but tries really, really hard.
The film is clearly aiming for the same Anglophile audience as Waking Ned Devine, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty. It’s actually directed by an American (former Muppet man Frank Oz), but the cast is made up of actors who are largely unknown on this side of the pond, making the appeal somewhat schizophrenic. Where’s Hugh Grant when you need him?
The story takes place at a lovely English country home over the course of a single afternoon (giving it the somewhat hermetic feel of an Agatha Christie novel). Seems the members of a dysfunctional British clan are gathering to pay homage to their freshly deceased patriarch. Shepherding the proceedings is dutiful son Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen, Pride & Prejudice), who has been living under the thumb of his demanding parents with his new wife Jane (Keeley Hawes, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) for far too long. With dad dead, Jane is pressuring Daniel to grow a pair and move on. That becomes somewhat difficult, as Daniel has sunk all of his cash into this elaborate funeral. Wannabe writer Daniel has also squandered all his self-esteem living under the perpetual shadow of his long-absent but highly successful brother (Rupert Graves, V for Vendetta), a celebrity novelist living in New York.
Over the course of the chaotic funeral service, assorted wacky situations rear their ugly head. Daniel’s frantic cousin (Daisy Donovan, Millions) mistakenly doses her nervous fiancé (Alan Tudyk, “Firefly”) with a powerful hallucinogen, accidentally supplied by her med-school student brother (Kris Marshall, “My Family”). A mysterious little man (Peter Dinklage, Underdog) shows up claiming to be the dead father’s secret lover and asking for a little recompense in exchange for some compromising photos. Cantankerous, wheelchair bound Uncle Albert (Peter Vaughn, The Remains of the Day) curses up a storm and suffers from diarrhea. A body falls out of the coffin. Somebody croaks. The reverend wants to leave. And through it all, everyone tries to act very proper and British.
It’s a simple enough setup for a farce about upper-crust English manners, but to be truly successful in this realm (think about all the classic Ealing Studios comedies), it must appear effortless. That’s the one element Death at a Funeral flubs. The humor is very strained, as if everyone involved is exerting the maximum effort possible to be hilarious. The situations, while amusing enough, come across as forced and contrived.
Everyone involved milks as much at they can from their characters. Tudyk (actually an American) gets the most laughs, probably because he’s stoned and naked almost the entire film. MacFadyen’s the only one whose role approaches the third-dimensional, and he generates a decent amount of melancholy from his perpetually put-upon character. Aside from that, the rest of the ensemble putters around the well-manicured estate looking for trouble and finding it, either in the form of drugs, dysfunctional family arguments or (in one instance) some particularly grotty potty humor.
Death at a Funeral looks good and sounds good. There are laughs to be had. It’s not the sort of movie you can hate. But English accents and ivy-covered walls do not an art film make. Death at a Funeral’s greatest crime is that it aims for the drawing room wit of Oscar Wilde and lands somewhere near the sitcom zaniness of Benny Hill.
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