Death at a Funeral: The Rare Remake With Life In It

I can’t think of the last time I saw a remake so shortly after the original. The original Death at a Funeral, a British film directed by Frank Oz three years ago, was immensely enjoyable. This remake, an American version directed by Neil Labute, keeps many of the same elements but is equally enjoyable. They found a way to keep the same basic story, characters, and jokes and give them a distinctly American feel– sometimes in imported remakes, you can feel remnants of the styles and values of different cultures. Here, it translates perfectly to our American sensibilities. Between the well-told story, the variety of characters, and a scene-stealing performance by James Marsden, you have a farcical remake that works. It’s not perfect, and some jokes don’t stick… but the ones that do are doozies.

Mr. Barnes is dead. His son, Aaron (Chris Rock), is trying to get his funeral together with many difficulties looming. His wife (Regina Hall) is desperate to have a baby, since Aaron’s mom (Loretta Devine) won’t stop harassing her about providing a grandchild. His brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence) has returned home for the first time in a long time after becoming a successful writer– and since Aaron is an aspiring writer, there is added resentment. His cousin, Elaine (Zoe Saldana), is bringing her nervous boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden). To calm Oscar, she gives Oscar a Valium that belongs to her brother Jeff (Columbus Short)… except that what she thought was a Valium was actually a homemade hallucinogen. Whoops. Meanwhile, family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan) is having trouble getting the grouchy Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) to the funeral on time. Derek (Luke Wilson), a friend of Elaine’s dad, is there lecherously trying to win Elaine’s heart. And then there’s Frank (Peter Dinklage), a little person who no one knows, but who keeps trying to talk to Aaron about an urgent matter…

Like all good farces, Labute capably keeps every storyline balanced and every character established from the moment we meet them. They all have dimension, but they also have clear motivations and distinct personalities. Perhaps this should credit the original story and the way it is structured more than Labute, but Labute’s timing and understanding make the film work. Also, it’s easy for a film with so many big comedy stars (at least six of the actors here have starred in their own vehicles recently) to seem crowded and busy, and it inevitably becomes more about the actors’ showmanship than the story itself. Here, everything is surprisingly restrained for a farce. Martin Lawrence hasn’t been this restrained since Life, and even racy Morgan doesn’t ever get too manic in the chaos. Danny Glover at this point in his career is a pleasure every time he’s up on screen, and he gets to swear up a storm as Uncle Russell. His final moment in the film would be too much coming from most other actors, but his line delivery somehow hits it right out of the park. Luke Wilson, who normally I find too bland to be noteworthy, gets to play a jerk, and it suits him well to play against his normal type. Columbus Short is about to become a big movie star, and his charisma, first shown clearly in Cadillac Records in a role that should have received Academy Award consideration, is infectious.

Peter Dinklage plays the exact same role that he played in the British version of the film, and with the same twist, and just like in the original, a mere stare that he gives can make me giggle. While he does get some broad comedy, and his character certainly is an absurd plot device, the subtle intensity with which he plays the part makes him the most consistently funny role in the film. However, the biggest surprise in the movie was James Marsden as the boyfriend who takes the drugs. Until Hairspray and Enchanted, he’d only played serious pretty boys, but here is his funniest and best work to date. The physical comedy is broad without becoming cartoonish, and each of his swift twists of mood are convincing. In a film with several of the funniest people alive, Marsden steals the show.

Then, there’s Chris Rock. As an actor, let’s be honest, he’s never been special. Coincidentally, his best acting performance was in Labute’s dark comedy Nurse Betty. As a movie producer, he has been interested for a while in remaking classic films with his voice. He’s remade Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (Down To Earth), Rohmer’s Chloe In The Afternoon (I Think I Love My Wife), and is next remaking Kurosawa’s High and Low. These are all great films, and Rock’s films never reach greatness, but he’s providing something unique– an African American’s perspective on the themes these classics carry. The original Death at a Funeral isn’t a classic, but this is the best of Chris Rock’s remakes to date. In the British version, the characters carry that trademark British stuffiness, but here the characters breathe. They are definitively American: their feelings, reactions, or relationships are identifiable to anyone, African American or otherwise. Not every joke in the film is a winner, and in particular the score to this film has an annoying habit of coming in to attempt to cue the audience into laughing after a joke– the rest of the movie is smart enough that one would hope it would trust the intelligence of the audience as well. Still, this outing is Labute’s best storytelling in a film in a while, and it gives me further hope that Rock the producer will reach greatness with a remake in the near future.

~ by russellhainline on May 2, 2010.

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