Death, Be Not Proud

Certain things come to mind when one envisions a comedy set in England titled Death at a Funeral. You know, the kind of dark, sarcastic, gallows humor those Anglos are famous for; maybe a little inappropriate sex; some buttoned-up stick-in-the-mud being made a complete fool of—that sort of thing. Unfortunately, director Frank Oz doesn't really have that sensibility. He seems to take his cues from the first five minutes or so of Four Weddings and a Funeral(i.e., Hugh Grant saying, “Fuck!” a lot), while ignoring the craftsmanship and character of the rest of that movie.

Oz lightens up every film he touches—witness his big-screen adaptations of Little Shop of Horrors and The Stepford Wives, both of which omitted the truly dark endings of their source material. He'd rather have everyone hug and be friends at the end, which is mighty Christian of him, though it usually feels like a cop-out. So it's hardly a spoiler that the “death” element here establishes a dark path it promptly veers from. Oz was also famously the voice of Yoda, and he seems to take that whole “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” thing a mite seriously.

So, yeah, we get a lot of English people swearing here, which some will find inherently funny (though not so many in England, I suspect). Wonderful colloquialisms such as “fucking tosser” and “wanker” abound. There's an old man yelling profanities as he discusses his need to shit, threats to “beat the living shit” out of someone, and a character saying, “Jesus fucking Christ” just as the priest walks up beside him. This isn't particularly shocking or offensive and would be less troublesome if it weren't for the fact that the film doesn't have much else to offer.

The plot is extremely simple: A family gathers for a funeral; wacky stuff happens. The deceased is the father of two, head of the family, and unless I missed it, I don't think he's ever given an actual name. He leaves behind a widow (Jane Asher) and a pair of sons—the ever-tentative Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) and successful New York-based novelist Robert (Rupert Graves), who lives a luxurious lifestyle yet remains a total cheapskate. Others in attendance include the deceased's brother-in-law Victor (Peter Egan), the obligatory uptight relative; Martha, his daughter, who's hoping to impress him with her fiance Simon (Alan Tudyk); Daniel's friend Howard (Andy Nyman), who's basically a rip-off of TV's Monk; Justin (Ewen Bremner), Howard's friend who shows up just to hit on Martha; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan, whom you may remember as the ogre in Time Bandits), the aforementioned old man with a defecation fixation who yells profanities while confined to a wheelchair.

Then there's a mysterious stranger named Peter (Peter Dinklage, milking his short stature for maximum weirdness and short jokes in a way this dignified actor usually avoids). Peter knows a secret about the deceased that's treated as a big reveal late in the game, though Oz is none too subtle about dropping hints that are such a dead giveaway early on, you can't imagine how any rational person would be surprised. Here's hint No. 1: The deceased's favorite Bible verse is the one about King David removing all his clothes. Hint No. 2: In Daniel's eulogy speech, he talks about how Dad liked to go swimming with his boyhood friend. Are you tittering yet? Doesn't it all seem a little . . . I don't know, Police Academy?

But that's nothing compared to the gags that seem lifted from an American Pie sequel, which took me completely out of the story. A bottle of hallucinogenic pills disguised as Valium keeps conveniently being lost and refound, causing Tudyk to run around naked the whole film. Then we see him hawk a loogie and suck it back up (twice), a pointless and irritating gross-out that's one-upped when Uncle Alfie splatters Howard's face and hands with diarrhea. We expect that kind of thing in a National Lampoon movie (not coincidentally, we avoid most contemporary National Lampoon movies), but here, it's like walking into a fancy restaurant and being served a dead rat: tonally inconsistent and sufficient to discolor the entire experience.

Then again, the audience of mostly senior citizens I watched the movie with were saying things on the way out like “Adorable!” and “Delightful!” Must've been the English accents; I can't imagine a similar reaction if this same story had been acted out by, say, Seann William Scott and Kal Penn. I can imagine a better movie based on a similar premise, but there's no way Frank Oz has it in him to make such a hypothetical beast.


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