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Death at a Funeral

An off-balance remake of a British farce is somewhat funnier than the original.

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What's so funny?: Chris Rock, Regina Hall and Martin Lawrence
  • What's so funny?: Chris Rock, Regina Hall and Martin Lawrence

Three years ago, the American Frank Oz directed an almost-all-British cast in a movie called Death at a Funeral. Now the American Neil LaBute has directed an almost-all-African-American cast in a remake. The difference is just barely more than skin deep.

The story, as stories go, is simple: At a patriarch's funeral, his assembled kinsmen, including his widow and two sons, learn that he had conducted a secret gay affair with a dwarf. This would be hard enough for an upscale British clan to accept, but to an upscale African-American family, it means Dad was on the down low -- or, as one family member quips, "Way down low."

In both instances, mayhem ensues, and it's slightly funnier when spoken in black English rather than the Queen's. (There's a noticeable comic disparity between Henry Higgins' "damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn," and Tracy Morgan's "daaamn!") LaBute directs a bit more briskly than did Oz, whose movies have always been visually stiff. And to tie the two versions together, Peter Dinklage returns in the role of the paramour with palimony and blackmail on his homosexual agenda.

In this version, sons Aaron and Ryan are played by Chris Rock, as the elder (by nine months), and Martin Lawrence, as the younger, a famous novelist who's squandered his riches, apparently on young women. (Cue the R. Kelly joke.) Aaron and his wife live with his mother (Loretta Devine), but they want to buy a house and, at long last, have a child. As the funeral service is about to begin, his wife is ovulating and, she informs him, not wearing any panties.

Then the guests begin to arrive. There's lovely cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and her goofy-sweet fiancé, Oscar (James Marsden), whom her father (Ron Glass) hates, but not because he's white. (He wants her to marry his white stockbroker, played by Luke Wilson.) Family friend Norman (Morgan) has a big mouth, cranky old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) has no control over his bowels, and Elaine's brother, a pharmacology student, has manufactured some super-potent acid that a nervous Oscar ingests, causing Elaine's dad to hate Oscar even more when he gets super-stoned -- and gets naked on the roof. 

LaBute, the brutalist playwright/filmmaker behind Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things, is not conventionally funny, and his kind of black humor is not this kind of black humor. But Death at a Funeral is still a flawed piece of material: The writer, Dean Craig, indulges broad farce when the smarter story would be the one where Dad, still alive, brings his diminutive lover home to meet the kinfolk. 

In fact, when Aaron finally gives his eulogy, he portrays his father as a man without prejudice who knew people were imperfect and who accepted them as they were. It's a lovely sentiment, but much too treacly coming moments after Norman wonders whether people can still smell Uncle Russell's shit on his face and shirt. 

As I watched Death at a Funeral, I tried to discern whether re-visioning this story as African American made a difference. The best I can conclude is that it didn't, which is probably a good thing. Race gets mentioned only once in the dialogue, and the person who brings it up gets rebuked for doing so. There's some honest homophobia that fades away in the end, and the American setting loosens things up a bit, but probably no more so than if the cast had been all white. Morgan is especially funny as the kinetic motor-mouth, and Marsden executes some elastic physical comedy. One senses that the film's comic actors ad-libbed its funnier, hipper lines.

Still, the highest recommendation I can give this Death at a Funeral is to say that a preview audience howled at much of the movie's raucous humor, far more so than people did at the British version. Does this mean that Americans have a baser sense of humor, or that the British aren't good at farce? I'll get back to you on that in a few years, when James Cameron makes the Asian-American version, starring Jackie Chan and Margaret Cho.

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