Death at a Funeral (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Death at a Funeral (2010)

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ANDREW LIKEDeath at a Funeral (2010) had to overcome a number of crippling handicaps for it to be even passably enjoyable.  First, it is another remake in a year of creative drudgery (not helped by the fact that the original came out in 2007).  Second, aside from Alan Tudyk's wonderfully unhinged performance, the original was not very funny.  Third, the remake is directed by Neil Labute in hired gun mode, and the last time he did that "How did it get burned?" became the catch phrase of the summer.

It's a minor miracle that it's not the worst film I've seen this year (stiff competition though), or that it's even mediocre.  It turns out that the material that Frank Oz and company were working with wasn't terrible, but suffered from a lack of zest for life.

The plot, characters, and large sections of dialogue of both films are almost the exact same.  Aaron (Chris Rock)  is doing everything that he can to keep the family from tearing itself apart as they all come together to bid a final farewell to his father.  He's got to deal with his own sibling rivalry with his successful writer brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), his perpetually fretting mother Cynthia (the wonderful Loretta Devine), and his frustrated wife Michelle (Regina Hall).

That may seem like enough story and characters to supply one movie with ammunition to entertain.  But the writer, Dean Craig, was not content with that set up.  Instead, he decided to cram the funeral home with an absurd number of supporting characters.

There's Aaron's cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who is dating Oscar (James Marsden), who is hated by Elaine's father Duncan (Ron Glass).  Also on their way to the wedding are Derek (Luke Wilson), a self obsessed jerk who Duncan prefers Elaine to be dating, and Derek's friend Norman (Tracy Morgan), who managed to get him an invitation to the funeral.  On the way to the funeral, Elaine and Oscar pick up her brother Jeff (Columbus Short), and Oscar accidentally takes some of the ecstasy tablets that were mislabeled as Valium.  So, by the time Oscar gets to the funeral home, he's hallucinating talking dogs and fascinated by the color green.  As all this is going on, angry Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) mocks everyone endlessly.

Oh yeah, then Peter Dinklage shows up as a diminutive mystery man that may or may not have had sexual relations with the father.  Unfortunately, flow charts were not included with the DVD.

A comedy as unsubtle and sprawling as this threatens to spiral out of control at any moment.  But Neil Labute manages to keep things ever so slightly under control, and we never lose track of who is doing what and where.  Considering that this is an ensemble comedy with only an eighty five minute run time and a central cast of twelve distinct characters, this is a fairly impressive accomplishment.  His camera cuts from situation to situation without interrupting the flow of carnage, and the film never runs out of steam.

But it's the seemingly improvised delivery of all the dialogue and physical comedy that really sends this over the edge.  Tracy Morgan and Martin Lawrence are fantastic comedians, and breathlessly invent new ways to distract, convince, or break through each obstacle they encounter.  Even the previously bland James Marsden scores a number of chuckles while he hallucinates his way through the funeral home, and gets a giant laugh when he starts singing a very off tone "Amazing Grace" to the widow.  Chris Rock serves as a great anchor to all this, playing the straight man while trying to find a way to pay proper tribute to his dad.

There's real affection in all the interactions here.  It never feels like the movie is dictated by the terms of it's screenplay, but by the eccentricities and love of the characters.  This is a close family, and they are each here to show respect for the dead father in their own way.  The personal conflicts all erupt slowly, gathering steam until suddenly a stoned midget is engaging in necrophilia and a hallucinating man jumps naked from the rooftop into the shrubbery below.  It's very difficult to see something like that and feel the family warmth, but they all pull it off.

It's not often that an Altman sized cast can take an understated British screwball comedy and make it come alive.  But I smiled and laughed all the way through this remake, and am willing to torch all copies of the old film.  Sometimes it's just gotta be loud, noisy and tasteless - not a bad thing to remember at a funeral.

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Death at a Funeral (2010)

Directed by Neil Labute.
Written by Dean Craig.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Chris Rock.

Posted by Andrew

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