Why is there a naked man tottering about on the roof of the pleasant English country house? Why, for that matter, is a malevolent dwarf residing in a casket intended for someone else? Should we worry about the "pigment mutation" that is obsessing a hypochondriac guest? Do we really have to endure the spectacular incontinence of dear old Uncle Alfie?
All these and many other matters besides are the subject of director Frank Oz's insanely funny, if occasionally out-of-control, black farce, Death at a Funeral, in which a bustling group of the British bourgeoisie gather to attend the last rites of a perfectly respectable and well-liked old gentleman who turns out to have had a secret life. That's where the dwarf comes in; he was in on the secret and thinks he has a right to some portion of the old boy's estate. He's also what the movie has for a villain, not so much for his monetary claim, but because he has some compromising evidence that threatens both the solemn decorum of the occasion and everyone's fond memories of the deceased.
I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that this wee chap (played by Peter Dinklage) eventually gets his comeuppance. It is, after all, the business of farce to restore order to radically disordered situations. The fun arises as we helplessly witness the mad logic by which, step by tiny step, chaos asserts its dominion over normalcy. Take that naked fellow on the roof. Until today, he was a perfectly normal lawyer, a trifle nervous about meeting his fiancÚe's family, but steadying himself by taking what he thought was a Valium. Not his fault that he grabbed the wrong pill bottle and ingested a hallucinogen instead. And so it goes the obsessive, the insecure, the clinically demented, the madly narcissistic and the merely stuffy: A lot of hidden agendas are going to come out of the closet before this movie winds up.
It helps that the cast is so impeccably British polite, well spoken, deeply concerned with keeping their knickers untwisted, their aplomb unruffled. It also helps that screenwriter Dean Craig's inventions have a certain unstrained serenity in their development. It helps most of all that Oz, the sometime Sesame Street puppeteer (and, lest we forget, the man behind Yoda) is in charge. He's always been a terrific farceur (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In and Out, Bowfinger) and he's at the top of his game here, a master at showing actors how to take the most appalling pratfalls while maintaining their deadpan dignity. If the movie errs, it is with an extended doo-doo joke that crosses over the line into grossness.
Square that I am, I averted my eyes as that one developed. But honestly, it is a smallish price to pay for this movie's many pleasures. Farce is an ever-endangered movie species, nowadays occurring mostly in movies intended for adolescents (Something About Mary, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up ) and mostly in a slightly adulterated form. These movies tend to be more sexually alert than classic farces and richer in bathroom humor than they need to be. They are almost a guilty pleasure for anyone over the age of 30, which does not stop me from skulking off to see them. But with Death at a Funeral, it's particularly and perversely pleasurable to see actual grownups defying modern movie demographics and falling about as if they were a bunch of moonstruck children. They are especially welcome as yet another humor-deficient movie summer grinds grimly toward its conclusion.