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Death at a Funeral

Frank Oz's film, set in England, might have been an urbane black comedy like the Ealing Studio classics of the 1950s, That hope disappears in the first 15 minutes

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Peter Dinklage arrives to shake down the living.
  • Peter Dinklage arrives to shake down the living.

What is it they say about British actors? They could read the phone book and sound good. After spending 90 minutes with Death at a Funeral, you may wish they had. The director, Frank Oz, is American, and so are two of the key actors. But neither the Queen's English nor Cockney vulgarisms can elevate this movie above the pathetic mess that it is.

This might have been an urbane black comedy like the Ealing Studio classics of the 1950s -- The Ladykillers comes readily to mind. That hope disappears in the first 15 minutes, as Dean Craig's script introduces a checklist of stock characters and their shrill witless neuroses. The least agreeable of them all is old Uncle Alfie, a foul-mouthed codger in a wheelchair. Eventually he has to take a dump, which he does -- on the hand of the hypochondriac dork who's pulling his pants down.

Yes, it stoops that low.

The corpse of the story is a well-to-do septuagenarian whose family and friends have gathered for a funeral at his country estate. The good son, Daniel (Matthew Macfayden), still lives at the estate with his wife and parents. The profligate son, successful novelist Robert (Rupert Graves), comes home from New York without the cash to pay for his share of the festivities. Worse yet, everyone expects Robert to do the eulogy. But that task -- which becomes a running "gag" -- falls to Daniel, who's jealous of his brother's literary success.

Various kin show up to "mourn," the most important of them being nephew Troy, a pharmacy student and amateur illegal druggist. His sister's fiancé, lawyer Simon (Alan Tudyk), is anxious about meeting his imposing future father-in-law, so sis pops him one of bro's Valium -- which is actually a homemade hallucinogen. This leads to acid-trip antics, and undressing atop a roof for all to see (except us: just bongos, no jingle bells).

Oh, and then there's the homosexual dwarf (Peter Dinklage), who had an affair with Dad and now wants money not to show Mom a photo of them in flagrante delicto. He eventually turns into the corpse of the title, sort of.

You know a movie's bad when its biggest laugh is a shot of a guy sitting naked on a roof, his butt crack perpendicular to the apex. As Mom's grief magnifies and she's offered tea, she says, "Tea can do many things, but it can't bring back the dead." This, I think, is supposed to be a wry commentary on British custom. Tudyk, an American actor who for much of the movie wears only a British accent, contorts ably when stoned; Macfayden and Graves have respectable moments as the bickering brothers. But Oz (In and Out), the hand and voice behind Miss Piggy, mostly seems to think he's still directing puppets. One more farce of a movie like this and there may not always be an England after all.

Starts Fri., Aug. 17.

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