DIR: Neil LaBute • WRI: Dean Craig • PRO: William Horberg, Sidney Kimmel, Laurence Malkin, Chris Rock , Share Stallings • DOP: Rogier Stoffers • ED: Tracey Wadmore-Smith • DES: Jon Gary Steele • CAST: Loretta Devine, Chris Rock, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Martin Lawrence
Death at a Funeral stars Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence and is an American remake of a three-year-old British comedy that was only so-so to begin with. Unsurprisingly, it’s not very good. What is surprising is that it still managed to disappoint me. When I first heard that Death at a Funeral was being remade I wasn’t filled with the sense of impending doom that you might expect. The original was a very near miss and surely these are the best films to remake: you can avoid unfavourable comparisons with the original and you can set right the mistakes of the past. This film does neither.
The action has been transplanted to America almost intact (the pop-culture references are a bit more up to date and the people say coffee instead of tea). Chris Rock takes on the Matthew Macfadyen role, playing Aaron, the good son, who has dutifully made all the arrangements for his father’s funeral. While Macfadyen had a screen presence that Rock undeniably lacks, he’s not known for his light touch with comedy. At least Chris Rock knows his way around a joke. Not that you’d know it here. The first half of the film plods along as the actors stand around flatly delivering telegraphed punch lines. Even the good gags (and there are some good ones that weren’t in the original) struggle to come to life. Only Zoë Saldana as Elaine (a cousin with a short fuse and wet boyfriend) really looks like she’s enjoying herself.
The plot moves further into farce as Aaron learns an unsavoury secret about his father and desperately tries to keep it from getting out. And here I hoped that Rock and Lawrence et al. might be able to let loose with lots of bug-eyed shouting. It might not be bearable, but at least they’d be in their element. But it never happens. And this is the film’s major problem: it’s too well behaved. If the director and his cast went for all-out farce they just might have pulled it off. Actually, it would probably still have been a poor film, but at least they would have tried. I blame the director. Neil LaBute doesn’t know how to handle his cast or tell a joke and he seems to shy away from giving the material the kind of over the top treatment it cries out for. They get it so wrong that the film’s only real over the top moment is its one foray into gross-out humour and this was better in the original for being understated. A farce that errs on the side of caution doesn’t deserve to succeed. The original could have been a good movie, this one (with this director) never even had a chance.