Chris Rock as Aaron
Martin Lawrence as Ryan
Regina Hall as Michell
James Marsden as Oscar
Zoe Saldana as Elaine
Peter Dinklage as Frank
Tracy Morgan as Norman
Luke Wilson as Derek
Columbus Short as Jeff
Danny Glover as Uncle Russell
Ron Glass as Duncan
Loretta Devine as Cynthia
Keith David as Reverand Davis
Directed by Neil LaBute
I’ll say right up front that I have seen and am something of a fan of Frank Oz’s original “Death at a Funeral.” That’s not to set this up as a comparison between the original and Neil (“In the Company of Men”) LaBute’s new version, but a lot of the real pleasure from both versions is ruined if you know too much about the gags ahead of time.
The original had a very small theatrical run, however, so more than likely you haven’t seen it. Returning writer Dean Craig’s script and LaBute’s talented cast are pretty true to the original, which means what worked the first time pretty much works this time around as well, though it’s not the smoothest fit.
Aaron (Chris Rock) is about to have the worst day of his life, and it’s not because he has to give his father’s eulogy. Following his father’s last request to hold his funeral at home, he is about to play guest to a pressure cooker of unresolved family tension, accidental drug overdose and at least one funeral crasher.
The central idea of a funeral that goes horribly awry still works, mixing black comedy and broad farce liberally but at such a steady pace that by the point where naked men are threatening to jump off the roof nothing seems out of place. Or at least not artificially so. It’s also got a firm sense of family pain and pleasure (mostly pain) and knows how to dial up the tension without ever falling into melodrama, though family matriarch Cynthia (Loretta Devine) pushes that envelope quite a bit.
It’s also got quite a bit of chemistry between its cast members, with more than a couple of stand-outs. Sad-sack Oscar (James Marsden) is designed to be a scene stealer and for the most part he is. Part of that is the natural zaniness built into his situation but a great deal of it is in the performance and Marsden pulls it off. Columbus Short also makes great use of what screen time he gets as the pharmacology student responsible for Oscar’s problems.
Unfortunately, “Death’s” cast is one of its few weaknesses, as well. As good as many of the film’s actors are in their roles, the central characters of Aaron and famous author brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence) don’t quite mesh. The reality is, “Death’s” British roots show through and through all of its moments. It’s a story built for a certain amount stiff-upper-lipness in the face of extreme absurdity, and neither Rock or Lawrence’s delivery really meshes with that particular type of writing.
It’s not just the new guys either; Peter Dinklage, the only returning original cast member, seems to be sleepwalking through his scenes.
Still, LaBute knows how to do macabre comedy and most of the real highlights still hit in a mixture of high and low humor that is well-designed and delivered, and that is much harder to do than it should be. The less familiar you are with the original the better the new one will come off, and in and of itself, it entertains. A little more tweaking for the actual actor’s voices to come through, instead of trying to put them into pre-concieved places, may have worked better, but on the whole, it’s still an excellent example of how the ensemble comedy should work.
(You can also read Joshua Starnes’ review for the original 2007 movie here.)