Death at a Funeral (review)

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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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Rachel H.
Rachel H.
Tue, Apr 20, 2010 12:47am

Seeing commercials for this movie — annoyed me to no end … I can’t imagine why the hell they remade this film. I love the original ‘Death At a Funeral’, it’s just damn good. Turning this into a vehicle where they’re beating you over the head with jokes is moronic. I enjoyed reading your review, and while I had no intention of ever seeing this dumbass version, you pretty much illustrated why (another reason is I can only take Tracy Morgan in small doses).

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 10:36am

I saw the original and was quite surprised to see it was being remade so quickly. I mean, this isn’t even a film that wasn’t released here in 2007. It was, and it was by Frank Oz, a well known American director. Did no one remember this movie was released here recently? I saw the previews for the new version and quickly realized it was following the original beat for beat. Then I read it was basically the same script. So what’s the point?

“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.”

Hyperbole aside, the thing made $16M to finish in the top-5 this weekend. And if you look at most top 5s, you see a lot of junk doing well. Do not overestimate the intelligence of the public. They get fed junk food, they learn to like junk food. As for intelligence, well, consider the median IQ is 100, and half the population is under that level . . .

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 10:44am

I’ve been waiting since Friday to see you rip into this! The original version is one of my favourite comedy movies ever, and I have no desire whatsoever to see this. The trailer and TV spots alone make me cringe. It pains me to see that Roger Ebert has given the American version a higher rating than the original one.

There’s also a 2009 Bollywood version of the film, and based on a handful of reviews at imdb, it’s even worse than this one.

Mark my words, we’ll be seeing a Korean adaptation of the film within two years!

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 11:06am

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.

It’s because they are idiots. How else do you explain box office returns on crap like this?

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 11:52am

I have to say that I haven’t seen the original version of this film, so maybe my opinion of the Chris Rock film is askewed. I expected this movie to be just what it was a black exploitive comedy that was going to vulgar and garrish and I got what I expected. I laughed a lot during the film as did the entire packed theater. This movie was fun and isn’t that what going to the movies is all about.

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 8:15pm

The original movie is fucking terrible. Like, terrible. It’s breathtakingly inane, broader than a barn side, and oh let’s throw in screamingly homophobic. The final speech is one of the most ham-handed, unearned appeals to sentiment I’ve ever seen. Haven’t seen the (terrible-looking) remake, but the exchange “I was drunk! You could have been a donkey for all I knew.” “Wow, thank you!” “That wasn’t a compliment!” was funnier than anything in the original movie.

There was a recurring character on SNL a few years back, Merv the Perv, whose whole shtick was to drive away women with obnoxious and disgusting pickup lines. In one sketch, he brought in his British cousin Steve the Skeev, who was basically the same character but he had a British accent so the ladies loved him. That’s how this whole thing looks to me. If Maryann says she wasn’t just taken in by British accents, well, maybe she really does see something I don’t, but come on — it’s not like they added in the hand-shitting and drug-induced nudity.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Tue, Apr 20, 2010 8:28pm

But Americans are supposed to be genetically engineered to like British films, MBI. Even if they’re crappy British films.

I must admit that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the original, either. And I find it amusing to note how many films that were just lacerated by intelligent film critics in my youth–Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Robocop, Back to the Future–ended up being championed by the very people who now think the sky is falling just because people are going to droves to see movies that they don’t particularly care for. (Apparently that never happened before.)

We can debate all day whether or not the original of this film was the cinematic equivalent of a polished jewel–which would be MaryAnn’s opinion–or much closer to cut glass–which is my opinion.

But I think we can all agree that the remake is no improvement.

Then again why exactly would you want to remake cut glass?

Thu, Apr 22, 2010 2:09pm

I also loved the original – I found myself laughing at things I knew were coming, and was never disappointed, and as MaryAnne said, it built in layers as the movie progressed. I have no desire to see this version of it – a travesty.

Fri, May 14, 2010 8:57pm

As a true lover of comedic cinema I absolutely agree with this review. The original was almost pitch perfect and had so many memorable moments. I know that there is a great deal of personal taste wrapped up in humor, and my wife and I enjoy Death at a Funeral far more than most of the people we’ve shown it to. The enormous grin on Howard as he walks across the crowded room… glorious.

I will not watch the remake… if I can in any way avoid it. I would hate to see such a wonderous laugh machine perverted by the ham handed efforts of Labute. Also in response to an earlier post:

“I was drunk! You could have been a donkey for all I knew.” “Wow, thank you!” “That wasn’t a compliment!” was IN the original movie.

don d
don d
Sat, May 29, 2010 9:00pm

Thanks, MBI. I expected something along “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, but came to realize crap like this is better left on the other side of the pond, clipped accents or not. Of all the source material Hollywood could have chosen to remake, this rank abomination does not even make the list.