Death at a Funeral (review)

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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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Tue, Aug 21, 2007 5:51pm

Oh maaan. British humor, Alan Tudyk, AND the Filosopher stamp of enthusiastic approval. Pleasepleaseplease let this movie be released in Maine eventually. How widely is it being released? Even within walking distance of two theatres that reliably show smaller releases, I can never be sure if I’ll be seeing something like this in the theatre or waiting for the DVD.

Tue, Aug 21, 2007 6:18pm

I dunno how wide this may go.. Bug your local arthouse…

Tue, Aug 21, 2007 8:06pm

I think I might do that if I don’t see it listed any time soon. Although, ha, I’m not sure if it would make much difference at one of those theatres, judging from the conversation I once overheard between employees about someone calling to bitch about their showing Fahrenheit 9/11 (aren’t people fun?). And the other tends to schedule a month or two in advance, though they’re the one who shows the most obscure and random stuff that isn’t playing anywhere else. (Brief, random tangent – a year or two ago, they played Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, long after it had hit DVD. I hadn’t gotten to see it in theatres, so I was ecstatic to get the chance. Stuff like that never happens around here.) It’s worth a shot, though; thanks for the idea.

If it doesn’t get a biggish release, probably my best hope is that it makes some money. The smaller movies that make money always end up here.

Wed, Aug 22, 2007 7:50pm

Excellent review, as always, but I do have one quibble. I haven’t yet seen Death at A Funeral, so your assertion that it does something novel which can be termed mortification comedy is all I have to go on. From the way you describe the concept though, I am reminded highly of classic farce, like Arsenic and Old Lace and especially Noises Off. I think, rather than something completely new, Death At A Funeral might be in fact doing something very old and classic, which, since it is beyond the range of Will Farrell, we rarely see anymore.

Wed, Aug 22, 2007 10:12pm

This is definitely farce, but it’s not much in the vein of *Arsenic and Old Lace,* I don’t think. I’ve never seen *Noises Off,* so I can’t compare it to that. *Death* does borrow aspects of classic farce, but it alsol borrows a few aspects of the gross-out comedy, too, which I think it’s safe to say Cary Grant never dealt with.

Thu, Aug 23, 2007 1:30am

Saw it today. Excellent movie, although my experience was heavily marred by a group of eight teenagers whose parents did not beat them nearly enough growing up. I may have to see it again, the experience was so unpleasant, and this time I will bring a baseball bat just in case. At least the theater gave me a free pass for my trouble, since they couldn’t be bothered to actually eject the troublemakers. (The punk teenagers outnumbered the security.) I adore Alan Tudyk so much. Of course, I have a Support Joss’s Peops clause that forces me to see any movie with any regular from Buffy, Angel, or Firefly. Oh, speaking of which, I’ve been catching up on Doctor Who this week! I just got to the one with Sarah Jane Smith and EvilBatGiles! Fantastic stuff! Sorry, getting off topic…

Thu, Aug 23, 2007 2:26am

For more Alan Tudyk, don’t miss *3:10 to Yuma*…

Thu, Aug 23, 2007 11:02pm

Yes’m! *salutes* I didn’t know, but was already planning on seeing that one! Mmmm… bonus Tudyk!

John Thomason
Fri, Aug 24, 2007 1:26pm

Hi MaryAnn, first-time commentor (and first-time reader of this blog, too, though I used to look at Cinemarati a lot). Comedy is the most subjective genre to critique, and given that I didn’t laugh once throughout the entire film, I have to say it was one of the more miserable experiences I’ve had in a theater all year. This would rank among the worst films I’ve seen in 2006, up there with “Wild Hogs,” “Hot Rod” and “The Ex,” — all, I feel, laughless comedies. I see little distinction in “Death at a Funeral,” and its near universal acclaim is baffling. A dwarf entangled in homosexual business, a guy on hallucinogenic drugs clearly written by a screenwriter who has never been on hallucinogenic drugs … I just can’t take comedies where no character acts like an actual human being. The toilet humor is sub-Farrelly Brothers, and I take issue with the sentiment that Frank Oz does not degrade his characters — I think he does nothing BUT degrade him, and it stupidly unimaginative camera angles of guys’ nude asses at that. I couldn’t help but think of Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,” a film that does that whole dyfunctional-family-gathering thing with genuine depth, feeling and honesty. And it’s a lot funnier.

I’m glad you enjoyed it and I wish I could say the same, but I wanted to put my contrarian opinion out there. Now Superbad on the other hand … I bet I could watch it a dozen times and find something new to laugh at each viewing.

A Guy
A Guy
Fri, Aug 24, 2007 9:47pm

Completely agree. It’s been some time since I laughed out loud in a movie that often. Certainly not at Superbad.

(BTW, the font size is way too small here. The main text is very small, and the side text is basically microfiche. And the font type is hard to read, it looks like it’s all italics.)

Sat, Aug 25, 2007 12:03pm

You do realize, A Guy, that you can control the size of the text that appears in your browser. (I’ve looked at my site on multiple computers under different configuations and different browsers, and the text has looked good on all of them.)

A Guy
A Guy
Sun, Aug 26, 2007 2:04am

Yes, thanks. I use IE 7 set to text size medium. Your site’s text just seems smaller than that of other sites (like IMDB, for example). No worries, I’ll just crank it up to larger as needed…

Laurie D. T. Mann
Mon, Aug 27, 2007 12:40pm

Except for an overly crass couple of sight gags, the movie is a complete hoot. Tudyk is brilliant (and we see so much of him for so long!). I’d only seen Macfadyen in P&P and he’s radically different here. And what fun to see Jane Asher playing Mum.

The only thing that was too bad was that the second-to-last sight gag was telegraphed for about fifteen minutes (if not longer). Still, I really enjoyed the movie.

Fri, Aug 31, 2007 4:50pm

I see that you’re raving about this painfully middlebrow farce, with its lazy shit and corpse gags and complete lack of engaging characters, while dismissing the much smarter and more nuanced ‘Superbad.’ To crib the title of a Mike Nichols sex comedy I’m sure you digged: what planet are you from?

Sat, Sep 01, 2007 2:35pm

smarter and more nuanced ‘Superbad.’


That’s way funnier than anything actually in *Superbad.*

Tue, Mar 30, 2010 3:49pm

Rather than see the new version, I’m just going to have to find this on DVD. Yay Alan Tudyk!