There’s nothing in “Death at a Funeral” that’s any funnier than the tagline that appeared in some of the advertising: “A family that puts the F U in funeral.” That’s gold!
The movie, a madcap British farce from director Frank Oz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “In & Out,” the voice of Miss Piggy), offers a few solid laughs and is generally fun, but it’s nothing great. I kept thinking it was taking its time to set up characters and scenarios that would later pay off in a frenzy of hilarity, only to realize the frenzy wasn’t coming. It’s more a mild torrent of hilarity. Scattered hilarity with a chance of guffaws.
The action occurs all in one afternoon at a picturesque English country home where a funeral is to be held for the family patriarch, Edward. His oldest son, Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen), is in charge of the arrangements, while the other son, Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist now living in New York, is waltzing in at the last minute to make an appearance. Daniel, a natural-born worrier, wants to be a novelist, too, and is highly conscious of the fact that everyone’s expecting his brother the wordsmith to give the eulogy, not him.
The family and friends arrive, all bringing baggage of their own. Cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) is secretly engaged to Simon (Alan Tudyk), but is fearful her father, the stern doctor Victor (Peter Egan), won’t approve; Simon’s accidental ingestion of a hallucinogenic drug disrupts the funeral and makes Victor’s disapproval all but certain. It’s Martha’s brother Troy (Kris Marshall) who’s responsible: He is “studying to be a pharmacist,” which in his case means concocting and selling drugs.
Then there are the friends, Howard (Andy Nyman) and Justin (Ewen Bremner). Justin has the hots for Martha; Howard is a hypochondriac and a worrier who gets stuck tending to vicious old wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan).
Also present is a man no one knows (Peter Dinklage), calling himself Peter and claiming to be an old friend of the deceased. I bet you can figure out what kind of “friend” he was if you think real hard, or if you watch the movie’s trailer.
Dean Craig’s script produces a lot of characters but doesn’t give them all enough to do. The Justin/Martha thing doesn’t go anywhere, for example. Edward’s bereaved widow, Sandra (Jane Asher), makes a few comments suggesting she doesn’t get along with her daughter-in-law, Jane (Keeley Hawes), but that’s rather pointless, too, although I do like her response when Jane offers her a cup of tea: “Tea can do many things, Jane. But it can’t bring back the dead.”
There is a professional, shiny polish on the movie, with everything running smoothly and coming off as an unforced lark. Whether the players all have anything interesting to do or not, at least Oz can jump from one subplot to another without losing steam, and the story’s confinement to one setting — the house — never feels claustrophobic.
The movie is not always laugh-out-loud funny, but at least it never becomes tiresome or aggravating — and that’s more than a lot of comedies can say. I do question the wisdom of going to the toilet for jokes, as “Death at a Funeral” does in one memorable scene. But then again, death and poop are the only things we all have in common, so why not make jokes about them?
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )