Death at a Funeral: Comedy on Life Support

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Screen Gems / Sony Pictures / AP

Tracy Morgan, left, and Chris Rock in Death at a Funeral.

Leaving a screening of Death at a Funeral, I stopped in the ladies room, where I overheard an insightful, pithy review of the comedy, which stars Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence as brothers who learn at their father's funeral that he had long been involved in a gay relationship with a white dwarf. "Stupid-ass movie," said woman to the right of me. Her tone was affectionate. "Oh yeah," said the woman to the left, also fondly. "Funny though," said the woman to the right. Then we all cracked up.

A review from the bathroom seems fitting for an unabashedly crass movie that gets its biggest laugh during a scene in which Tracy Morgan, as family friend Norman, tries to ease the dead man's brother Russell (Danny Glover) out of a wheelchair and onto a toilet. While he is pulling down Uncle Russell's pants, Norman's hand gets caught in the line of fire, so to speak, and the resulting laugh is noteworthy because in more than a decade of reviewing film, I have never witnessed such a unified reactive and uncontrolled spasm from an audience; everyone threw their body forward and then back in disgusted delight at least twice. For a few seconds, the theater looked like a Grateful Dead concert.

This does not usually happen at movies directed by Neil LaBute. When he's also the writer of the film, as with In the Company of Men or Your Friends & Neighbors, you'll find disgust at what creeps we human beings can be, but not a lot of delighted laughter from viewers. But LaBute didn't write Death at a Funeral. It's a remake of an only reasonably successful 2007 British comedy. The stories are so close that the same writer, Dean Craig, takes official credit for both movies — some scenes are word for word the same — even though the script had something of a creative do-over by its American filmmakers.

 For a remake to happen so speedily usually entails a shift from a foreign language to English. But in this case, there's a cultural shift instead: from affluent white Brits to American buppies in Los Angeles. Aaron (Rock) is an accountant and aspiring writer while the ever-so-slightly younger Ryan (Lawrence) is a ragingly successful novelist who seems to write in the Tyler Perry genre. Ryan carries Louis Vuitton luggage yet dodges all financial responsibility for the funeral. Still, he's the favored son and everyone, including the pastor, is excited that he's flown in from New York for the funeral. Meanwhile Rock assumes the sort of Everybody Hates Chris underdog role he clearly relishes. Aaron is a decent, hardworking guy but he gets no respect. His mother (Loretta Devine) mocks him for not being able to get his wife (Regina Hall) pregnant — although even a dead body in the house isn't stopping them from trying — and his father's lover (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original) interrupts the funeral to demand $30,000 in hush money. 

Many of Death at a Funeral's jokes aren't funny at all and some of its actors give clunky performances (Lawrence) or downright unpleasant ones (Luke Wilson, as a smarmy, pushy family friend). But LaBute's strategy is just to pile on the potential comedy until the screen is so crowded with gags that something gratuitous is bound to hit the funny bone, whether it's homophobia, misogyny, foul-mouthed elderly relatives or a handful of poop. Is the mere sight of a corpse — or for that matter, a dwarf — riotous? No, but Dinklage, with his impeccable timing, can play with almost any lame material, use his physique as a sight gag and still maintain his dignity. 

Feces aside, the most reliable joke in Death at a Funeral is a running one involving a funeral guest with an inappropriate fit of the giggles: Cousin Elaine's boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden), amiable but much loathed by her father. When Oscar gets a major case of nerves, Elaine (Avatar's Zoe Saldana) slips him a Valium courtesy of her brother Jeff (Columbus Short). Only it's not Valium at all; Jeff is a pharmacology student, and this is one of his experiments. "It's like acid mixed with... acid," Jeff explains, sometime after Oscar overturns the coffin. Marsden (X-Men, Enchanted) looks like a male model, but his smile is so infectious that the joke, cheap as it is, keeps Death at a Funeral alive longer than you'd expect.