Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On DVD: "Death at a Funeral (2010)"

You know what, I gave Death at a Funeral a shot. Yes, the mere notion of remaking a three-year-old British comedy seemed patently ridiculous--it was already in English, for God's sake! And newer than Happy Feet! And directed by an American! But the personnel involved are encouraging--the director is Neil LaBute, a director of skill (if not the first guy you'd think of to helm a fast-paced farce), and the notion of populating it with a mostly-black cast (producer Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Zoe Saldana, etc.) was intriguing. But it doesn't work. It might if you haven't seen the original, but I doubt even that; in trying to do both a faithful remake and a wacky buppie comedy, LaBute and crew accomplish neither.

The story, as before, concerns the funeral of the family patriarch, being held by his request in his large home. Elder son Aaron (Rock), who has taken care of all the arrangements, lives in the shadow of his successful brother Ryan (Lawrence), a best-selling author. Aaron figures his biggest headache of the day will be delivering his eulogy (even the minister can't understand why Ryan, "the writer," isn't doing it), but everything that can go wrong, does. The funeral director (Kevin Hart) delivers the wrong body. Niece Elaine (Zoe Saldana) brings her boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden), who is hated by her father Duncan (Ron Glass)--and accidently gives him a dose of a high-powered hallucinogen. Duncan, meanwhile, has invited her smug ex (Luke Wilson); he and Norman (Morgan) are responsible for delivering crabby, impossible Uncle Russell (Danny Glover). And then Frank (Peter Dinklage) shows up, claiming that he and the deceased were lovers--with the pictures to prove it. He's not happy about being left out of the will. He'd like to sell his silence.

The original Death at a Funeral, directed by Frank Oz with a British cast, was an enjoyable door-slammer, but distinctively Anglo in its attitudes and playing. The remake's primary mistake may very well have been the decision to retain Dean Craig's original screenplay; I haven't seen the original since its theatrical release, but the film seems barely adapted for its new cast, aside from a couple of topical references and the occasional, slightly rewritten line ("Daddy was on the down low?"). What this new version needed most was the one thing Craig's sturdy script couldn't provide: a new voice.

A remake can work, on its own terms--but it has to become its own thing, the way The Departed or Ocean's 11 or The Birdcage did. Death at a Funeral '10 is such a slavish recreation of the original film (even the sets look the same, as if it's a Broadway play being performed by the touring company) that neither LaBute nor his cast have the freedom to do what they do well. My curiosity towards the film was genuine--what might these performers contribute? What would be added by Rock's quiet rage, Lawrence's fast-talking energy, Morgan's anything-goes persona? Having seen the film, it's still hard to know. They all seem straightjacketed by the tightness of the picture, and there are only flashes of real collaboration--the three of them don't really have a scene together until well into the third act (and things definitely tick upwards when they do), and when Rock and Lawrence finally have it out, their verbal and physical confrontation has its own spark, feeding off the two performers' nasty energy. (Much of the film is hamstrung by Rock's unfortunate overacting; LaBute got the actor's best performance to date in Nurse Betty, but can't do much with him here, aside from his funny first crack at the eulogy--a monologue, significantly.)

There are other performances worth noting. Dinkalge's appearance may be the most befuddling (he played the exact same role in Death at a Funeral '07 --are there no other little actors? Was Tony Cox unavailable?) but he does it marvelously; he should, since he's had plenty of practice. Hart basically steals the first reel, while Regina Hall is charmingly put-upon as Rock's wife. And Saldana is especially good--her reactions to Oscar's dilemma frequently eclipse what Marsden is doing. He may be the actor who suffers the most in comparison to the original film; he simply has neither the likability nor comedic chops of Alan Tudyk, who created the role (though a bit late in the film, with Columbus Short's Jeff trying to get a nude Oscar in through a bathroom window, is well-executed).

As talented a director as he may be (The Wicker Man notwithstanding), LaBute never finds a specific comic groove for the picture; when Marsden wrecks the first shot at the funeral, knocking the body out of the casket and sending the entire service into a disarray, it doesn't unfold with the precision that good farce and good slapstick requires. It feels forced, and Christophe Beck's zany music just sounds desperate. Speaking of desperation, the turn to scatological humor of the third act is stomach-churning without being particularly funny, and the note of mawkish sentimentality sounded at the end is particularly false--it's like LaBute gave up and tried, at the last minute, to turn it into a Tyler Perry movie. So I guess, looking through that prism, the film could've been much, much worse.

Aside from the British original, Death at a Funeral '10 is strangely reminiscent of another film: Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot Psycho remake. There as here, one could see talented people frittering away their talents and energies on a project that allowed them to add little of what would make us want to see their work in the first place. Neither is a bad movie, not really. But neither makes a convincing case for why there's any reason for it to exist.

"Death at a Funeral" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 10th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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