Death at a Funeral (2007)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/27/07 22:08:23

"Almost as funny as it's trying to be."
3 stars (Just Average)

There's something almost quaint about "Death at a Funeral"; it could have been made and set up to a hundred years earlier with just a few details being changed. Maybe it would have been better that way; this farce about a dysfunctional English family stiff-upper-lipping their way through a disastrous funeral might occasionally have benefited from having to be a little more restrained, or a little less old-fashioned.

Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is attempting to run the affair, which is not off to an auspicious start, with the undertakers initially bringing the wrong body. His wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) seems more worried about whether he has delivered the down payment on a flat in the city, so that they can sell the house if Daniel's mother Sandra (Jane Asher) will live with her other son, Robert (Rupert Graves) in New York. Every mourner expects Robert, a successful writer, to deliver the eulogy, which just makes Daniel feel more slighted. Also in attendance are nephew Troy (Kris Marshall), a student chemist; his sister Martha (Daisy Donovan); her nervous fiancÚ Simon (Alan Tudyk); hypochondriac family friend Howard (Andy Nyman); Justin (Ewen Bremner), who is smitten with Martha; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), the requisite cranky wheelchair-bound old man. Also appearing is Peter (Peter Dinklage); no-one else recognizes him but he feels entitled to something, even beyond being there.

This is fairly well-worn ground, but to a certain extent that means that the material is well-tested; most everybody knows their role, and how this kind of comedy works, and as such they don't slip up very often. Writer Dean Craig and director Frank Oz generally balance irreverence with sincerity; they're careful to make sure that their characters aren't too peculiar; otherwise, the movie would just become a grotesquerie about people who are eccentric and stupid for no good reason. They do test the limit of that on occasion - these days, apparently even British comedies about repressed family tension have scatological bits which are momentum-crushingly unfunny, and a recurring bit about the Valium that Martha gives Simon actually being a designer hallucinogen goes on for a very long time before paying off as something other than getting a disconnected laugh out of Alan Tudyk acting crazy every few minutes.

The trouble is that the film really needs to cut to Alan Tudyk every few minutes, because the various bits with the family members stopping short of open bickering feel familiar and, while well-acted, are never quite so funny as they should be. I don't think there's a single point where this movie zigs when one would expect it to zag; or a joke that becomes extra funny because the details are unexpected. Some of the conflicts seem to be little more than standard issue: Martha's father isn't impressed with Simon because that's how potential father-in-laws are; Sandra is passive-aggressive because the only other way to play her is bawling constantly. Everything that goes wrong at this funeral is supposed to be driven by these characters' histories, but the backstories aren't unique of fleshed-out enough to make things go quite this awry.

The set-up may be generic, but the cast handles it with great skill. The relationships between the various characters all feel genuine; the brothers, in particular, behave the way real brothers do, with everything unspoken because it's been present their entire lives - rivalries, jealousies, taking each other for granted, and knowing exactly how the other feels. There's also something perfectly right about how Martha relates to Simon; no matter how out of control or embarrassing the situation gets, these two do love each other and this pointedly isn't a crisis. Even Peter, who comes in with demands and thus causes much of the trouble, has a real sense of loss to him.

A few individual performances stand out. Macfadyen makes a fine straight man, always just about ready to crack. Dinklage is as good as usual, with presence well beyond his short stature. Alan Tudyk almost effortlessly turns in yet another memorable supporting performance, basically playing high for an hour and a half. Daisy Donovan is an earnest delight as Martha. And Andy Nyman and Ewen Bremner make a fun odd couple.

I guess they don't make a lot of films like "Death at a Funeral" any more; the drawing-room comedy kind of went out with drawing rooms. It's a bit of a shame; there are undeniable pleasures to the film's dry wit, and if it seldom delivers the guffaw, it at least manages a steady stream of chuckles.

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