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Death at a Funeral (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Frank Oz Shows There Is Life After "The Stepford Wives"
4 stars

The problem with a lot of screen comedies today is that they have become too rambling and undisciplined for their own good–the elegant constructions that of writer-directors like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder have given way to haphazard collections of random gags that are barely held together by a narrative structure that often feels more like an afterthought than anything else. For example, Judd Apatow may well be the current king of American comedy but while “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” are both very funny films, only his most indulgent fans could fail to notice that both of them run on too long and contain unnecessary scenes that have been included only because he didn’t have the discipline to let go of them for the good of the film as a whole. (To be fair, his latest production, “Superbad,” is a comedy that contains a surprisingly solid structure beneath its seemingly wild surface–then again, Apatow didn’t write that particular film either.) For those who have been yearning for something a little less messy in their screen comedies, the British import “Death at a Funeral” will come as a relief–this is a classically constructed example of the genre that has been put together with such consummate skill and intelligence that most viewers are likely to find themselves forgiving the fact that it is never quite as laugh-out-loud funny as it clearly yearns to be.

As you can probably surmise from the title, the film deals with all the weirdness and wackiness that ensues when family and friends gather for the funeral of a loved one. At the center of the madness is Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen), the nice normal son of the deceased who is struggling to put together his eulogy even though it is clear that the other guests would prefer that it be delivered by his brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), a sleazy-but-successful author who is more interested in making time with the cuter guests than in making peace. Then there is Daniel’s mother (Jane Asher), who is bereaved, of course, but not too bereaved to make a cutting remark when it is (or isn’t) warranted. (When Daniel’s wife touches the coffin, she admonishes her for smudging it.) Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughn) shows up to pay his last respects but he is such a grimly unpleasant and foul-mouthed presence that many of those in attendance are probably wishing that he was the guest of honor. Then there is Justin (Ewan Bremmer), who isn’t even related to the family but who shows up in the hopes of winning back ex-girlfriend Martha (Daisy Donovan), even though she is there with her fiancee, Simon (Alan Tyduk). Simon, for his part, is so nervous about meeting the family that he grabs a couple of Valium from a bottle belonging to Martha’s brother–how was he to know that the brother is actually an illicit drug maker and that those “Valium” were actually powerful psychedelics. With all this going on, no one really notices the strange little man (Peter Dinklage) sitting by himself at first but it turns out that he knew the deceased quite intimately and has the photos to prove it unless Daniel gives him hush money right there and then.

Having set up these plot traps (among others) in the first half-hour or so, screenwriter Dean Craig spends the remainder of the running time setting them of one by one using everything from dry British wit to over-the-top physical comedy and while the funniest bits appear at the very beginning and the very end, the stuff found in between never completely devolves into downright stupidity. While the film is understandably bogged down in the beginning because of the need to introduce all the characters and their relationships to each other, director Frank Oz (returning to the farcical mode that he demonstrated in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Bowfinger” after the debacle of the “Stepford Wives” remake) eventually finds his footing and the rest of the film moves at an agreeable pace towards its frantic finale. Although Dinklage and Tyduk have the most obviously showy roles (and make the most of them), the ensemble cast as a whole work together with the grace and precision of a well-oiled machine–they have the energy of a theater troupe who have been performing the same play long enough to know how to get the best out of each other but not long enough to simply be going through the motions.

The only real problem with “Death at a Funeral” is the unavoidable fact that while it is funny in spots, it never quite breaks loose to became as wildly and outrageously funny as it seems to think that it is–it is at times too restrained and sophisticated for its own good. And yet, while I may not have laughed at every single comedic bit in the film, I did laugh at quite a few of them and found myself smiling at most of the rest. Alas, it is likely that the very people in the mood for a reasonably smart and funny comedy are likely to ignore it entirely because it has the singular bad fortune to be released on the very same day as the really smart and really funny “Superbad.” That is the one to see, obviously, but if you have time this weekend to see a second screen comedy that isn’t a total affront to one’s comedic or aesthetic senses, you might want to give “Death at a Funeral” a chance.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15625&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/17/07 00:58:50
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User Comments

9/09/19 Louise (the real one) Thought it was funny the first time around - 2nd time not so funny. 3 stars
4/01/15 Anne Fawlty Towers so much better, actors tried way too hard, movie not funny 2 stars
3/24/08 MBB Outstandingly funny. 5 stars
12/29/07 Billo this movie is pretensious, predictable and unfunny 2 stars
11/19/07 Ben Very amusing. Light easy hearted comedy. Kudos 5 stars
11/03/07 BJ Hysterical. Really a fun film 5 stars
10/16/07 Don Not funny, not like Four Weddings etc., avoid at all costs 1 stars
10/12/07 Helen Bradley Great comedy good fun 5 stars
8/27/07 Ole Man Bourbon Actually it seemed like amer. comedy-that one char was George Costanza all over. Ok only. 4 stars
8/19/07 sully always go to the English for comedy.... 5 stars
8/19/07 Heather Very, funny movie 5 stars
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  17-Aug-2007 (R)
  DVD: 26-Feb-2008

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