Understand that I have no problem with “Death at a Funeral” being remade even though the original is only three years old and was already in English. While there are certain films that should be off-limits to remakes, “Death at a Funeral” — a passable but hardly brilliant British farce — is not one of them.
No, my objection to the new “Death at a Funeral” is that it’s not very funny. Oh, it’s pleasant enough (apart from a graphically disgusting poop scene), and it has a few good laughs. They are sporadic, though, spread over a 90-minute film that never builds any real momentum. A broad farce like this, with multiple characters and side plots, ought to whiz, not drag.
The setting is a large, beautiful home in Los Angeles, where today the patriarch of the Barnes family will be laid to rest. Edward Barnes’ widow, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), lives here with their son, Aaron (Chris Rock), and Aaron’s wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), who hope to buy a place of their own soon, if only to avoid Cynthia’s nagging about wanting grandchildren. Aaron’s brother, a hotshot novelist named Ryan (Martin Lawrence), is flying in from New York for the funeral. Everyone is disappointed that Aaron, being the oldest, is giving the eulogy, rather than Ryan, who cobbles words together for a living. Personally, I’d rather hear Chris Rock than Martin Lawrence any day.
Also in attendance is the deceased’s brother, an imperious doctor named Duncan (Ron Glass), and Duncan’s two grown children, Jeff (Columbus Short) and Elaine (Zoe Saldana). Jeff is a pharmacology student who makes and sells recreational drugs. One of these pills is ingested by Elaine’s boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), who thought it was Valium and needed to calm down because he gets nervous around Elaine’s dad. It wasn’t Valium, though, and Oscar spends the entire film on an acid trip.
Let’s see, who else? Ah, family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan) and his buddy Derek (Luke Wilson), who used to date Elaine and is favored by Elaine’s dad. Norman is tasked with picking up old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), who is cranky and foul. “He’s always in a bad mood!” someone complains, to which the response is: “It’s not a ‘mood’ if he’s always in it.” A few lines of dialogue establish that Norman is NOT a member of the family, but it’s never clear how he’s connected, then, or how he’s affiliated with Derek, or why he, as a non-family-member, must take care of Uncle Russell. But I digress.
Lastly, we have Frank (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is a stranger to everyone except, apparently, the deceased. Turns out he’s there for blackmail purposes. The film’s trailer indicates what the dirt is, but I’ll omit it. Interestingly, Peter Dinklage was in the 2007 film, too, and is the only cast member to reprise his role. Evidently he is the only dwarf in show business.
So what happens at the funeral? Shenanigans, that’s what! Also: hijinks. You’ve got nervous Oscar on drugs, and Norman being a crazy hypochondriac, and grumpy Uncle Russell all grumpy, and Cynthia doesn’t like her daughter-in-law, and the mysterious dwarf wants money. You may rest assured that the casket gets knocked over. It causes the funeral to be delayed for well over an hour. Geez, how long does it take to put a guy back in a box?
Dean Craig, who wrote the 2007 original, has done the rewrite, too, keeping the story, changing much of the dialogue, and moving the action to California. (Chris Rock did uncredited rewrites.) The director is Neil La Bute, trying his hand at all-out wackiness for the first time (unless you count the unintentional hilarity of “Lakeside Terrace”). I’m not sure who’s to blame for the scarcity of laughs. Did it lose something in the translation from British to American?
Consider this. The humor lies in the juxtaposition between the somber, dignified event and the low tomfoolery that disrupts it. Upper-class Brits have a built-in reputation for refinement, making the juxtaposition that much stronger. But Americans are inherently casual. We don’t stand much on ceremony. We certainly don’t get a solemn or distinguished vibe from Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, and company. So it doesn’t feel quite as disastrous — and thus funny — when their funeral gets ruined.
A final note. I haven’t mentioned race at all. This is because, except for one throwaway line, the movie doesn’t mention it either. But to look at the message boards on IMDb — written by people who haven’t seen the movie — you’d think it was “Do the Right Thing.” People are outraged that the original film, with an all-white cast, has been remade with an almost all-black cast. But the movie itself registers a big “So what?” Nothing about the story has been changed to make it more “black.” The film hasn’t been African-Americanized. It’s simply been Americanized. Complain about THAT if you want, but follow the movie’s example by leaving race out of it.
C+ (1 hr., 30 min.; )