The first time I saw the trailer for the re-make of “Death at a Funeral,” the 2007 British farce which had modest success in the United States, I was confused. First of all, the film was only made three years ago. Second of all, the plot and characters seemed pretty much exactly the same, (Peter Dinklage is even playing the same person) except for one obvious difference: in the latest version: the family is black.
It’s an interesting choice. I don’t know who made the decision to make the family, who in the film have gathered for the funeral of their patriarch, African-American. Presumably it was made by writer Dean Craig, who wrote the first film. But in the end it really doesn’t matter why the decision was made. And though I’m always happy to see more people of color represented in mainstream film, it doesn’t even matter that the main characters are black.
Written by: Dean Craig
Starring: Chris Rock, Peter Dinklage, James Marston, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover
Seen at: AMC Loew’s Boston Common
All I care about is the fact that it’s funny. And it is really, really funny.
After a terrible round of comedies at the start of the year (I’m looking at you, “Bounty Hunter”) “Death at a Funeral” is a riotous yet well-tailored bit of fun. It’s the perfect blend of one-liners and sight gags, of biting social commentary and poo jokes. It’s a simple premise: an extended family gets together for a funeral. The deceased two sons are Aaron, (Chris Rock) a modest public accountant trying to have a baby with his wife, and Ryan, a pompous writer of books with titles like “Momma’s Secret.” Their cousin Elaine (the resplendent Zoe Saldana) is bringing home her fiance Oscar (James Marsden).
At the beginning of the film, Oscar accidentally takes acid. Aaron learns that his father has been having a gay love affair with a little person named Frank (Peter Dinklage) who is now extorting them for part of the inheritance. There’s a lot more of course- this is an ensemble cast, with everyone from Tracy Morgan, to Danny Glover, to Loretta Devine and an unfortunately bloated Luke Wilson. But in all ensembles there are always a few that stand out.
Marsden’s performance, for example, is the stuff of comedic legend. Taking his matinee idol good looks and twisting them into a series of bizarre ticks and child-like mannerisms, Marsden is both hilarious and strangely charming. He spends the whole movie wandering around the funeral home grounds, admiring the view from his drug-fueled haze, and watching him gaze at a trio of lawn gnome with pure love and well-being is wonderful and a pretty damn accurate portrayal of someone on acid. And in what is perhaps the funniest moment of the film, he serenades Devine’s grieving widow with a soulful version of “Amazing Grace,” which is somehow even more inappropriate than when he knocks over the casket.
Choosing Rock as the straight man was a very good choice- I’ve always felt that Rock had a weird sense of gravitas to his performances, and even his stand-up. His one-liners are hit or miss (note to screenwriters: jokes about Facebook or Twitter are only a little funny, and should never be used more than once), but he’s best when he’s reacting to someone else’s insanity. His wife, who’s ovulating, tries to turn him on by telling him she doesn’t have any panties on. “What?” he shouts, “My God, I’m burying my father, go put some panties on! Funeral panties!”
And then there’s Tracy Morgan, the man who made a career out of playing simply a ramped up version of himself. I’m reasonably certain Morgan ad-libbed some of his lines, including what might be my favorite non-sequitor ever: “Look, everyone knows the Colonel stole his secret recipe from a black slave named Jubilai.”
Why is this line so funny? I think it’s the name- Jubilai- which could only come from the slightly cracked-out mind of Tracy Morgan. The line makes no sense in or out of context, it just sits there, perfectly formed and waiting for you to catch up, do a double take, and laugh again.
I’m going to move into TMI mode right now and admit something: I have a serious crush on Peter Dinklage. I don’t care that he’s four feet tall. I loved him in “The Station Agent.” I loved him in “Living in Oblivion.” I loved him in “In Bruges.” I loved him as Liz Lemon’s love interest on “30 Rock”. He is ridiculously talented, excruciatingly funny, and damn good-looking to boot. I would watch him read out of the phone book, and I adored watching him here. Dinklage doesn’t play Frank as fruity. There is no mincing, no delicately rendered lisp. Just a small guy in a leather jacket who happens to like “Dreamgirls”.
Frank is also ostensibly the villain of the piece, which shows you writer Dean Craig and director Neil LaBute’s sheer courage. It takes a lot of cajones to make a gay dwarf your bad guy in the P.C. world we live in. Almost as much cajones as it takes to turn a British comedy of errors into an American film with a mainly black cast, without resorting to a Tyler Perry act of minstrelsy. This movie could have easily been a disaster. But it succeeded, through good casting, good jokes and, I imagine, sheer force of will.