Though it runs the risk of stereotyping a wonderful culture and country, it’s fair to say the British do dark comedy better than any other group of people in the entertainment industry. Black comedy is a hard genre to pull off successfully. If the film goes too dark, it can feel forced, unpleasant and in your face, but if there is too much subtly it can feel dry and unfunny. Farce is an even harder type of story to tell in any fresh manner. The wheels spin, and the plots get thicker and tighter, but the audience is always a step ahead of the characters. In many ways, that’s part of the genre’s hysteric charm.
“Death at a Funeral,” directed by the reliable Frank Oz, is a prime example of both of these genres. Oz, the man behind “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “In & Out” and “Bowfinger,” masterfully controls the tone of “Death at a Funeral,” allowing it to run rampant and get progressively zanier. Not once, however, does it push the audience too far over the edge. It always remains wonderfully, gleefully plausible.
The film begins with a gag involving switched coffins, and the hilarity does not let up for the next hour and a half. Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen), a novice writer reluctant to show anyone his first novel, is busy overseeing the funeral of his father, a man, as he puts it, “who has more friends dead than alive.”
All manner of mourners come to pay their respects at the idyllic manor house where the services are being held: Robert (Rupert Graves), Daniel’s older brother and a successful author; Simon and Martha, Daniel’s cousin (Alan Tudyk and Daisy Donovan), a couple struggling to make a good impression on Martha’s stern father; Troy (Kris Marshall), Daisy’s brother and proprietor of illegal substances; Uncle Alfie (the wonderful Peter Vaughn), a bitter, wheelchair-bound old fart; and the mysterious Peter (the equally wonderful Peter Dinklage), a man with an air of menace about him who no one at the service recognizes.
All of these characters find themselves colliding headlong into each other in ways both unpredictable and familiar. One of the first real complications involves a sudden headache Simon gets in the beginning of the movie. At Troy’s apartment, Martha unwittingly gives Simon a pill she thinks is Valium. Of course, it’s something much, much more mind-bending. Soon afterward, Simon thinks he’s hearing dogs and strolling around the estate with a dazed look in his eyes, balefully noting how green everything is. According to Troy, this is going to last for at least eight hours. As she has to deal with Simon’s newfound bliss, Martha must contend with the advances of the creepy Justin (Ewen Bremner), a former one-night stand who shows up to the funeral just to see her.
After one of the first big set-pieces of the film (Simon, in a sudden fit of paranoia, disrupts the service in the worst manner possible), Peter decides he must talk to Daniel privately about something of the utmost urgency. Taking a long time to get to the point, he shows Daniel some photos of his father that change his perspective of him completely (they also reveal why his father has a book called “Silver Screen Goddesses” and replications of Michelangelo’s “David” in his study).
It takes a little time for the film to really kick into gear, but Oz knows how farces need to be paced. Any moviegoer will be able to spot the machinations of the script by Dean Craig a mile away. That’s not why one goes to see a movie like “Death at a
Funeral.” People go to see a film like this just to see if it will be able to make them crack a smile, chuckle under their breath or as this film was able to do, laugh heartily and honestly. Innovation is not on the menu, but a good slice of macabre is more than satisfying.
“Death at a Funeral” was written by Dean Craig and Directed by Frank Oz.
“Death at a Funeral” received three out of four stars.