A black comedy using the modern classic dysfunctional family mold, Frank Oz’s “Death at a Funeral” doesn’t break any new ground, but it does entertain relentlessly with a great deal of charm and well executed humor. It’s the sign of a well-crafted comedy that the setups and punch lines are somewhat telegraphed, but work well nonetheless. Oz directs with a steady hand and the result is a fine example of the classic English farce. Taking place almost entirely within Daniel’s family home that is trying with increasing desperation to hold a private, respectful wake, “Death at a Funeral” often resembles a staged drawing room comedy.
That kind of work lives and dies on the strength of it’s ensemble, and fortunately “Death” has a strong one. There’s no real leader to guide it, but it manages well enough, with everyone given a place to fit in, except for Ewen Bremner who, much like his character, has no real reason to be around. He’s a funeral crasher who seems as if he’s supposed to be providing some sort of crisis to Martha (Daisy Donovan), who is secretly engaged to Simon (Alan Tudyk), a man her family despises, but it doesn’t ever really work and eventually quietly disappears as Simon takes the forefront when he is accidentally drugged with a super hallucinogen and begins wandering about naked. Tudyk is a gifted comedic performer, but Simon’s antics are never quite as funny as it seems like they are supposed to be and eventually go on a little too long.
That, however, is the worst that can be said about “Death at a Funeral.” There’s nothing particularly novel about the individual character stories, but they’re not really what the film is about either, existing just to give the gags something to hang off of, but that’s perfectly alright. While it’s rarely laugh-out-loud hysterical, it is consistently funny throughout, crossing the spectrum of high and low humor with equal success. What big laughs there are, are mostly due to Howard (Andy Nyman), Daniel’s misfortune prone friend, and Troy (Kris Marshall), Martha’s chemistry student/drug dealer brother. Whether they’re trying to help a paraplegic uncle (Peter Vaughan) go to the bathroom, or guard a tied-up blackmailer (Peter Dinklage), they always get the worst of it and to great effect.
“Death at a Funeral” never quite hits the farcical heights it’s aiming for, but it’s still got plenty going for it, thanks to an excellent cast and experienced direction.