Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Frank Oz

Cast: Matthew MacFadyen, Keeley Hawes, Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Daisy Donovan, Alan Tudyk, Jane Asher, Kris Marshall, Rupert Graves, Peter Vaughn, Thomas Wheatley, Peter Egan, Peter Dinklage

MPAA Rating: R  (for language and drug content)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 8/17/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

A British comedy that has been influenced more than a bit by American comic sensibilities, Death at a Funeral is a fine example of how much tone and execution affect low humor. There are a lot of gags here we'd expect in a typical, envelope-pushing, American gross-out movie, but director Frank Oz handles them like they're more sophisticated jokes. Or maybe it's just his and screenwriter Dean Craig's understanding that jokes just don't usually come out of nowhere. There's setup and characterization at play, and while one could fairly (and accurately) argue that both elements are performed with the barest level of simplicity, it's refreshing to watch a film that grasps the basic concept of good joke-telling. It's also fair (and accurate) to mention that all of these jokes have been done before, and most of them can be seen coming a mile away. That's part of the fun and success of the film, though, too. We know what's coming, know that these upper-crust Brits aren't going to like it, and, by the time the comedy starts to work consistently, know that the payoff is going to make us forget that the gags are obvious and the punch lines are predictable.

Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) is preparing for the funeral of his father, and after a mix-up involving the body, he prepares for the onslaught of problems that will arise. His mother Sandra (Jane Asher) is a grieving mess and still holds some resentment towards her son's wife Jane (Keeley Hawes). His brother Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist, is late flying in from New York, and Daniel must face living more under his brother's shadow, as he must give the eulogy—a task for which everyone thinks Robert is better suited. His cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) is coming with her fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk), but no one knows they're engaged yet. They pick up her brother Troy (Kris Marshall), a "pharmacist," and Simon, to calm his nerves, takes what he thinks is Valium but ends up being the furthest from that. Howard (Andy Nyman), a hypochondriac, and Justin (Ewen Bremner), a former lover of Martha's, have to pick up the rude, foul-mouthed Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughn). The service is starting late, the reverend (Thomas Wheatley) is in a rush, and there's a mysterious man (Peter Dinklage), whom no one in attendance has ever seen before, wandering around, trying to catch Daniel's eye.

Near the beginning of the film, when all these characters and their relationships and their baggage are revealed, one is almost tempted to create a diagram—if not a flow chart—of how each of them relates to the other and what potential misstep(s) they will inevitably make. I took furious notes, trying to figure out who these people were, missing some of it, and spying the gags a mile off. It's not complicated, but some of the characters are superfluous, bordering on needless. Take Justin, who exists for some unneeded conflict as he talks to Martha in the hallway while her husband-to-be trips out, naked, in the bathroom. Even the resolution of his character seems an afterthought, the punch line as anticlimactic as his existence in the story is unnecessary. The reverend, on the other hand, seems at first to mainly act as an object of shock, but his fervor to leave culminates in an added bonus to the climax, when a plan to dispose of a body is just about complete. Yes, there's a body to be taken care of (the title tells us so), but it's best to leave the discovery of who (fairly obvious) and how (not quite as much) to you.

Most of the laughs come from that "Valium" and Simon's reaction to it. We've seen this joke of someone inadvertently drugged many times, but Alan Tudyk is still a hoot in the familiar joke. The bottle of pills is left lying around, and we know it's only a matter of time before someone else gets a hold of them. Craig spares us a mass hallucinogenic mourning party and saves the administration of the drugs until the last possible minute they're required. In the meantime, we get some nice awkward pauses, a few callbacks to and expansions of the recurring jokes, and some random moments, like the reverend's strange Scripture passage, the deceased dressed as a Roman centurion in a photo, and Howard's horribly inappropriate conversation with the widow. Howard might seem another needless character, but he's part of the most disgusting joke involving him and Uncle Alfie on the toilet. Here's further proof that scatological humor is not a comic evil unto itself, and that it can work if the setup (a hypochondriac) and focus (said hypochondriac's reaction) serve something more than just grossing out the audience. We've become accustomed to the lazy version of such humor.

Some of Death at a Funeral might sound lazy as well. It is, and it isn't. The jokes are common, but the cast toys with them well.  The script is bogged down with characters, but the right ones get the right jokes. You also have to appreciate a film that takes a seemingly throwaway line during one of Simon's hallucinations and turns it into the setup of the last laugh during the service.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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