Death at a Funeral (review)

Die Laughing

This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and that’s not something I say lightly. I can count on one hand the number of movies that make me laugh out loud, long and hard, no matter how many dozens of times I’ve seen them — The Princess Bride and Midnight Run, definitely; Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are about to be added to the list… and I think that’s it. Until now. Death at a Funeral. Death at a Funeral. I’ve seen it twice now, and I can’t wait to own it on DVD so I can own it and watch it whenever I want, which will be about a gazillion times, and I will laugh my ass off every time, and marvel, too, about how it achieves that alchemical feat that American movies almost always miss: combining genuine feeling and outrageous hilarity without ever, ever having to resort to degrading its characters.
It’s rare, actually, that I have the opportunity to see a film twice before I review it, but I saw this one months ago, when it was originally scheduled to open. And then it got bumped to now, which meant my nice local PR folks scheduled even more screenings. And while I usually can’t justify spending even more time on a movie I’ve already seen, I couldn’t resist with this one: it’s simply that perfect. And I’m glad I made the time, for I discovered that Death is even more insanely funny the second time around and that yes, as I suspected, it really is as wise as it is hilarious.

Dean Craig’s perfect script is, actually, practically Shakespearean in its exquisite foolishness and comedic intrigue, which is why it becomes more funny upon multiple viewings. It’s only when you know how things will shake out in the end that you can truly appreciate how beautifully layered the humor is, how untiring the extended, riffy jokes are, how it all interconnects and bubbles to multiple climaxes and comes full circle in the end. And it all happens to real-seeming people with many and varied neuroses, throwing them into extraordinary circumstances and pushing them beyond their usual limits, so that when they do end up in embarrassing situations, as most of them do, they are not the butt of any mean-spiritedness — as shocking as the film is in places, it is never, ever mean. Even as it deploys some sticky situations, its sympathy is always with those real, messed-up people. Here are multiple instances of those extreme rarities: toilet humor than works, gay jokes that work.

In this instance, perhaps, we need to redub the “humiliation comedy”: here is the first mortification comedy, which isn’t about the juvenile “appreciation” of the transitory embarrassment of, say, a bird shitting on you (I’m thinking of every idiotic comedy that thinks it’s amusing to show us the protagonist on the toilet, explosively defecating, as if this had any kind of significance). It’s about the much deeper indignity of discovering that the people we thought we knew don’t feel about us the way we thought they did. It’s about learning things about people we thought we knew that cast them in a different light and make us realize we know only a tiny slice of who they are. It’s about “merely” having our own hangups doused in a bucket of cold water and hung out to dry in public, or as public as “everyone I know and care about” can be.

And here’s the really brilliant aspect of Death: it ties up that those kinds of startling disconnects with the emotional roller coaster of a funeral. The story plays out in a single afternoon at the family funeral of the patriarch, and how it descends into disaster. The proper, uptight son, Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen: Pride & Prejudice, MI-5), is contending with the disappointment of, apparently, absolutely everyone that he will be doing the eulogy instead of his freespirited brother, Robert (Rupert Graves: V for Vendetta, Extreme Ops), who just happens to be a bestselling author. The hypochondriac family pal, Howard (Andy Nyman: Severance), gets stuck with cantankerous Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan: Longitude, An Ideal Husband), who desperately challenges the notion that we should respect our elders, as well as clueless, heartbroken Justin (Ewan Bremner: Alien vs. Predator, Around the World in 80 Days), who can’t seem to make Daniel’s steely-cold cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) understand that he’s madly in love with her; she’s rather distracted by her boyfriend, Simon (Alan Tudyk: Knocked Up, Serenity), who’s having a bad reaction to some, um, Valium he took. And then shows up the mysterious Peter (Peter Dinklage: Find Me Guilty, Threshold), who seems to be an old friend of Dad’s and really, really needs to talk to Daniel, ASAP.

The cast is flawless — Tudyk and Dinklage in particular get wonderful showcases for their often underappreciated and underused talents, but everyone is perfection, consistently underplaying when the impulse might have been to get big and loud. (Director Frank Oz [The Stepford Wives, Bowfinger] surely deserves much of the credit for that; this is easily his best film ever, or at least since 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And hey, come to think of it, that movie is on my short list of laugh-long-and-hard movies). Arguments are whispered, rage is contained to a just barely stoppered boil, glares and grimaces and rolling eyes often do when words aren’t called for at all. My God, we’re at a funeral, the movie seems to be scolding itself as it snickers, but by deliberately pretending to respect the solemnity of the occasion, Death shatters it, puncturing our notions of propriety and decorum and peeling away the veneer of etiquette.

But isn’t that what always happens at funerals, particularly of those people we might be most mortified to have know our deepest secrets, or of those people whose deepest secrets we might be most mortified to suddenly learn? Haven’t you ever been horrified to discover that you’re laughing as much as you’re crying at the memorial for a close friend or family member? No one onscreen here is laughing, but by making us howl, Death reminds us of that often disturbing correlation between grief and laughter, between a confrontation with death and a life-affirming horniness… which gets amply satisfied here with the sexual-like release belly-aching laughter provides. This is a tragicomedy of manners for the ages, one that recognizes, just as Daniel does eventually, that “life isn’t simple, it’s complicated,” but strangely and magnificently so.

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