Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral is similar in most ways to Frank Oz’s 2007 British original. It’s practically a scene-for-scene remake. The same screenwriter, Dean Craig, is responsible for both films. And Peter Dinklage even plays the same exact role in both. The major difference really is this: LaBute’s version is considerably more funny.
Before you take me out behind the woodshed and shoot me in the head for suggesting that an American remake of a three-year-old British film is superior, I should probably add this: I didn’t think Frank Oz’s film was very good. (Go ahead: one in the head, one in the heart). It was mute — it wasn’t very farcical for a farce. It was lifeless and dull and the characters were misanthropic and unlikable.
Indeed, while Alan Tudyk was the only good part of the original Death at a Funeral, James Marsden — who plays the same character in the American remake — is the best part of a more consistently amusing movie. Tudyk was great, but Marsden is better, and nearly every scene he’s in elicits a laugh in the remake.
While Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral was decidedly restrained and somewhat lethargic, Neil LaBute unscrews the cap on the American version, although he doesn’t — as you’d expect — shake it up with a lot of dick and fart jokes, black stereotypes, or Martin Lawrence’s BLAM face before he release the cap. It’s still Neil LaBute, the independent director of Your Friends and Neighbors and The Company of Men. He hasn’t assembled an overly crass “urban” version of Death at a Funeral, he’s just allowed the original the breathe, in part by casting several actors known for exaggerating their characters and asking them to reign it in. The result is a mostly happy medium between the British version and what you’d expect of this version based on the marketing.
The setup replicates the original, but since so few Americans actually saw the original, it’s worth repeating: As the family comes together for the funeral of the patriarch, the movie’s running gags fall into place: Aaron (Chris Rock) and his wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), seem to have more concern about making a baby than than the the death of Aaron’s father. Aaron’s brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence) is a famous author who blew all his cash on a first-class ticket for the ceremony, and thus has no money left to pay his half of the funeral costs. Everyone expects Ryan to do the eulogy, because he’s the writer, but Aaron is afforded the task because he’s the oldest.
Elsewhere, two friends of Aaron’s (Tracy Morgan and Luke Wilson) are charged with picking up the senior-citizen uncle from a nursing home, which leads to shenanigans at the funeral when the wheelchair-bound uncle needs to take a shit. There is also the subplot concerning Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who is engaged to Oscar (Marsden), but her family doesn’t approve of him, a matter that is not helped when Oscar inadvertently takes a hallucinogenic instead of Valium. After tripping his balls off for half an hour — rubbing up against the couch, taking a bite out of a lamp, and inappropriately fondling the widow — he knocks over the coffin under the hallucinatory impression that the corpse inside is still alive. During that break, Dinklage’s Frank reveals to Aaron that he was the dead father’s gay lover and threatens to reveal that secret unless he’s given $30,000.
Antics ensue, often to amusing effect.
I thought that the original Death at a Funeral tried too hard to trade in British dry wit for crass American slapstick and came up empty — it didn’t suit the players (Matthew Macfadyen, after all, is about as lively as a brick). The American cast seems to better suit the sloppy material and the improbable situations. They elevate a mediocre script, while the British cast wallowed in it. Moreover, LaBute rounds out the actors’ caricatures to fit the tone: Martin Lawrence is less DAMN baby, Tracy Morgan is less off-the-wall batshit (it’s his best work since A Blaffair to Rememblack), and Chris Rock holds it together ably. It’s nice, too, to see a few actors normally relegated to bad urban films — specifically Loretta Devine and Columbus Short — get to play real people dealing with an improbable situation rather than improbable people dealing with moronic situations.
It’s still not a great comedy, but it is a marked improvement over the British version in the sense that at least the American remake is a comedy instead of a dour endeavor sparked only by Tudyk’s manic performance. If anything, LaBute knows this more than Frank Oz did: If you’re going to make a comedy, the best place to start is by hiring comedic actors. Dramatic actors make a bad comedy worse, comedic actors at least bring their own personalities into the equation. Maybe the next time Death at a Funeral is remade, in 2013, they’ll hire a comedic director as well.