(by Dustin Putman
It's understandable that a death in the family is enough to put a strain on anybody, but this is ridiculous. An unnecessary remake of the 2007 British comedy directed by Frank Oz, "Death at a Funeral" opens well enough as the heaping ensemble is introduced. There are even a few scattered laughs to be had in the first thirty minutes. That is where the good will ends. Written, as with the original, by Dean Craig and helmed by Neil LaBute (2008's "Lakeview Terrace"), a once-provocative, staunchly independent filmmaker who in recent years has lost his entire identity and most of his talent, the film is a mean-spirited, chaotic, headache-inducing act of desperation that largely relies upon running gags that overstay their welcome interspersed with a lot of screaming, cavorting, and running in and out of rooms. Nearly all the characters are self-involved and insufferable—in this way, they are believable as a family who take after each other and deserve one another—which makes the experience all the more gamy. This is one instance where the longer the movie plays out, the worse it gets and the lower its standards are dropped. Article continues below
Set over one trying and eventful day in the lives of an extended family coming together for the funeral of a patriarch, aspiring non-published writer Aaron (Chris Rock) must contend with morticians who have misplaced the body of his father; a wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), who is ovulating and eager to conceive; a mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), who is inconsolable in her grief over losing a husband and not having any grandchildren; a successful brother, published author Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who everyone is constantly comparing him to; a cousin, Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who has brought her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), to the service not realizing that he has accidentally popped a hallucinogen he thought was Valium; a family friend, Norman (Tracy Morgan), who is at constant battle with crusty, wheelchair-bound Uncle Russell (Danny Glover); and a stranger, Frank (Peter Dinklage), who shows up only to confide in Aaron that he was his father's longtime lover. One would assume things are bound to get interesting. One would be wrong. They just get awfully loud.
"Death at a Funeral" is so slight and inconsequential that it seemingly evaporates the moment each frame leaves the screen. The first act is innocuous enough, with the ongoing tensions between Michelle and passive-aggressive mother-in-law Cynthia cause for the funniest moments. Additionally, Oscar's antics after getting high off mescaline are auspiciously pulled off early on thanks to the loopy, go-getter performance of James Marsden (2009's "The Box"). Things quickly unravel from there, with director Neil LaBute stringing along jokes that have long since stopped being amusing—like Oscar's drug haze, which lasts the duration of the running time—while aiming for the lowest common denominator in humor. That Aaron's father was having a long-term affair with another man unbeknownst to his own wife Cynthia could have added a bit of tension and drama to the mix without losing sight of the inherent comedy of the situation, but it isn't dealt with in any satisfactory manner. Instead, there are a bunch of potshots at Frank's short height, some thoroughly tasteless material involving what is presumed to be a second dead body, and a climactic eulogy that is meant to be bittersweet but goes down about as easily as a lead pipe being swallowed by an infant. By this point, the deceased doesn't really seem like that savory of a man—he spent his whole life lying to his entire family, after all—and neither do the argumentative, disrespectful living characters.
Not all of the cast members typically make good movies, but they all have at least proven their worth a time or two in the past. Chris Rock (2005's "The Longest Yard"), of course, is a supremely talented comedian and an immensely likable presence. As Aaron, he is asked to be the level-headed protagonist here and does that just fine. Who wants someone like Rock to play the straight man, though? As brother Ryan, Martin Lawrence (2008's "College Road Trip") is given nothing to do but chase around barely legal friend of the family Martina (Regine Nehy). The two most capable performances arrive courtesy of Regina Hall (2009's "Law Abiding Citizen"), consistently terrific and charismatic in usually bad movies, as Michelle, and top-tier character actress Loretta Devine (2008's "First Sunday"), getting the best lines as matriarch Cynthia. Michelle's and Cynthia's acidic relationship is the best thing about the picture; a film centering on these two firecrackers would have been preferable to a distaff remake of an English-speaking movie that isn't even three years old. On the other end of the spectrum—no fault of the performer's—is Luke Wilson (2008's "Henry Poole Is Here"), who understandably looks confused as to what he's even doing in this project. His character of Derek, who is Norman's friend and Elaine's ex, plays little part in the proceedings and probably should have been written out of the script altogether.
If you think an old man defecating on his grown nephew's hand is outrageously witty, or a corpse toppling out of a coffin in the middle of a teary funeral service is the height of hilarity, or the sight of a naked man dangling from a roof is enough to tickle your rib, then "Death at a Funeral" might just be up your alley. For the rest of us, it is a lame-brained, shallow, insensitive, monotonous ordeal. Director Neil LaBute mistakenly believes that the more his characters yell and race around, the zanier it all shall be. He couldn't be more wrong. A comedy about death doesn't need to be some sort of stuffy study in existentialism, but it wouldn't hurt to include a few basic truths about getting older and one's own mortality to level off all the juvenile potty humor and slapstick on display. Alas, "Death at a Funeral" is content to be as rancid and base as it wants to be, without anybody learning anything and no discernible point to any of it. The next time someone dies in this family, the lot of them would be better off staying home and mourning in private.