Death at a Funeral (review)

Killed Stone Dead

I sat in the multiplex this weekend in absolute stunment under the bombardment of Neil LaBute’s broad, crude, unsubtle remake of the brilliant 2007 British film Death at a Funeral. How on Earth, I found myself wondering, could this have gone so damn wrong? The script for this one is virtually identical to the original — both are credited to Dean Craig, and the original film so seared itself into my brain that I remembered some lines verbatim — so how, I fretted, could the first film work so well and yet this one induce squirms, groans, and, frankly, abject horror? I ran out of the movie compelled to immediately find a DVD copy of the 2007 version, which I’d seen twice back then but not again since, suddenly terrified that I’d been mistaken three years ago: Could Frank Oz’s movie really suck as long and as hard as LaBute’s, and I’d somehow merely been taken in by British accents?
I did find that DVD, and I did watch the 2007 film again, and I was relieved to find that no, I was not mistaken. The first film wonderfully meshes emotions that appear conflicting — sorrow and humor, exasperation and love — and reconciles them in such a way that captures the terrible confusion of grief while also being outrageously funny along the way. The humor builds slowly and is beautifully layered: it assumes you’ve actually been paying attention all along and will appreciate that something will be funny without it knocking you about the head… and that something can be funny and sad at the same time. Kinda like real life.

There is nothing so nuanced in this Death at a Funeral.

When people complain about stuff being Americanized, this is what they’re talking about. The 2007 film is hardly deep — there is nothing abstruse or unapproachable or highbrow about it. It’s just not stupid, and doesn’t assume its audience is. But LaBute’s (Lakeview Terrace, The Wicker Man) version assumes that the viewer is a complete and utter fucking moron who cannot see a joke unless the punchline is telegraphed a mile out, who cannot laugh at physical humor unless it’s so obvious it would embarrass the Three Stooges, and will actually like random one-liners from inconsistent characters who will do anything for a “laugh,” even if it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever even within the context of a dramedy about grief. If the American mainstream is not, in fact, comprised almost entirely of sub-Neanderthal cretins — and I refuse to believe that it is — then we should be insulted to be treated like this.

The word “dramedy” cannot be applied to this film, actually: it doesn’t feel like anyone is actually grieving here, even though it takes place entirely over the afternoon of the home funeral of the patriarch of a wealthy Los Angeles family. Chris Rock (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, I Think I Love My Wife) is the eldest son, the responsible homebody; Martin Lawrence (Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Wild Hogs) is his younger brother, a famous novelist who’s flown in for the funeral; Tracy Morgan (Cop Out, G-Force) is an obnoxious family friend; Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek) is a cousin who’s brought along the boyfriend, James Marsden (The Box, 27 Dresses), her father disapproves of because he wants her to marry his financial planner, Luke Wilson (Henry Poole Is Here, Battle for Terra), instead. Meanwhile, Peter Dinklage (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Find Me Guilty) shows up as a friend of Dad’s with some demands to make on the family. (In the saddest aspect of this remake, Dinklage reprises the role he originated in the first film, except where it was once tinged with poignancy, here it feels cheap.)

Looking at these two films side by side teaches a remarkable lesson in the delicacy of filmmaking, and how little needs to be altered to make a movie unbearable: Do this and you end up with something sublime; do that and you end up with fingernails on a chalkboard. In this Funeral, the tone is wrong, the pacing is wrong, and the emphasis is in all the wrong places. In a few instances it misses a joke entirely. Mostly, however, it unnecessarily hammers home a point that didn’t need to be hammered home, as when — and this occurs within the first few minutes of the film, so it’s the least spoilerish I can be — Rock discovers that the undertaker has screwed up and brought the wrong coffin to the family home. In the original, the shock on Matthew Macfadyen’s face and the tone in which he asks who this man in the casket is is enough to convey the incongruous horror and humor of the situation. Here, though, LaBute simply must cut to a shot of an Asian man in the coffin, as if to underline the joke and put an exclamation point on the notion that this could not possibly be Chris Rock’s father. Har har.

The whole movie is like that. And not only does it makes for an unenjoyable experience on its own, it’s downright infuriating in the larger context. I’m fucking tired of being treated like I’m an idiot, and I don’t know why more people don’t feel the same.

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