Most people probably have some degree of awareness of the current version of Death at a Funeral staring Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. However they may not be aware that is actually a remake of a small British film with the same title directed by Frank Oz (director of Bowfinger.) While the US remake has taken the premise into the realm of broad comedy the original is a smaller, quieter and more subtle look at what should be a serious event gone horribly wrong. This low-key approach does not sacrifice any of the comedic potential of the premise, in fact it actually enhances it by keeping even the most outlandish occurrences feeling grounded and real.
Death at a Funeral takes place during the funeral of Daniel’s (played by Matthew MacFayden of Frost/Nixon) father. The coffin brought to the house has the wrong person in it and this initial mishap sets the tone for the entire day. Daniel has to contend with the existing tension between himself and his successful writer brother Robert (played by Rupert Graves from V for Vendetta) in from New York, a supremely grouchy uncle (Peter Vaughan of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,) relatives with sorted histories and a diminutive guest who nobody seems to recognize (Peter Dinklage of The Station Agent.) Toss in a nervous fiance who was given a hallucinogenic drug that he thought was a Valium and the fact that Daniel can’t afford to cover the funeral and put a deposit down on a new flat so he and his girlfriend can move out of his mother’s house. It all adds up to a wonderfully paced black comedy with a delightfully subversive sense of humor.
Performances in Death at a Funeral are fairly low key across the board. With one or two exceptions all the characters are portrayed as possessing that classically British sense of stuffiness, meaning outrageous personalities are not where the laughs are coming from. These characters are all so wonderfully repressed that the true humor of the film comes in watching them trying to quietly cope with things that would have any reasonable person pulling their hair out and screaming at the top of their lungs. However that distinctly British sense of politeness and proper etiquette has all the players trying to maintain the proper dignity of a funeral. The relationship between the brothers played by MacFayden and Graves is particularly engaging. There’s a very quiet and repressed sense of rivalry between the two that bubbles just below the surface and creates wonderful tension between them and those around them. Probably the most memorable performance comes from American actor Alan Tudyk (sporting a flawless English accent.) Tudyk plays a character who takes what he thinks is Valium early in the film, not knowing that he’s actually taken a very potent hallucinogen. He starts to lose it early on but doesn’t truly freak out until he realizes what’s happening and tries to pull himself together. Tudyk perfectly plays a drug induced fascination with everything and zoned out logic makes the character’s actions unpredictable yet oddly reasonable at the same time.
Funerals are actually a very natural setting for a comedy, because nobody is supposed to laugh at the funeral and suppressed laughter is often the most rewarding once it is set free. The humor of Death at a Funeral is carefully built up over time. The film starts with fairly reasonable and believable complications (coffin mix ups, financial woes and crotchety relatives) and slowly the events become more and more outrageous. It’s done at a very deliberate pace so that by the end blackmail schemes and naked men on the roof feels like a completely natural progression of the story. Through it all the performances are straight and grounded and help keep a sense of reality to the whole thing. None of the actors are going out of their way to be funny, nobody is trying to tell jokes. Rather it’s the very nature of the characters and the situations that they are in that bring out the humor, punchlines simply aren’t needed.
Death at a Funeral doesn’t have a great number of truly hilarious moments, but it’s just not that kind of comedy. It’s a comedy of building tension, not of big laugh jokes. The humor and fun is there throughout but it’s all fairly low key and subtle (certainly when compared to most American comedies.) Those who like their comedies to be full of quotable jokes that they can share with friends may come away a bit let down by this film as there are only a handful broad comedy moments. However movie goers who like to see stuck up people squirm will find a great streak of lightly black humor in this little film (perhaps gray humor would be the best way to describe it.)
Final Score: 4 out of 5