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What can a critic say about “Death at a Funeral” (2010) that he hasn’t already said about “Death at a Funeral” (2007)? With the window between original films and Hollywood remakes getting shorter and shorter, a critic is sorely tempted to recycle old reviews — especially when filmmakers don’t bother to change, much less improve, anything from the original. The only real change is that a British farce, taking place at a chaotic funeral in an upper-middle-class house, now has a largely black cast and been transported to a Los Angeles suburb. Otherwise, this is virtually a shot-by-shot copy of the original.
Indeed, the same screenwriter, Dean Craig, penned both versions. But he fails to take advantage of the opportunity to tighten and refine a script that, while funny in spots, never overcame the utter transparency of its plot mechanics. One saw nearly every disaster coming a mile away.
This predictably doesn’t much matter because the remake’s producer and star, Chris Rock, has assembled a stellar cast that, as he put it at the film’s premiere, includes just about every black performer not in a Tyler Perry movie. So the domestic audiences that failed to turn out for a moderately funny British farce will come in much greater numbers to see this moderately funny American farce.
There is another holdover from the British version: American actor Peter Dinklage, who plays the deceased’s “special friend,” who turns up for the service with his own upsetting demands. He again becomes one of the twin sources of turmoil at the funeral, the other being the eager-to-impress fiance (James Marsden) of a cousin (Zoe Saldana) who unwittingly ingests a powerful hallucinogen that causes him to shed all his clothes and perch on the roof.
Other sources of conflict come with the two sons of the deceased, Aaron (Rock) and Ryan (Martin Lawrence), as the former rages with jealousy over the latter’s considerable success as a best-selling novelist; Aaron’s wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), chafing under the thumb of her domineering mother-in-law, Cynthia (Loretta Devine); and a family friend’s (Tracy Morgan) battles with a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound elder (Danny Glover).
Three things strike one as unusual. The first is seeing Rock play such a put-upon straight man. This takes him out of the flow of his normal wise-ass comedy, but give him credit for trying to stretch as an actor. The second is seeing Glover so miscast. The actor has too much dignity and is too good-looking to be playing an old fart.
The most curious thing is the presence of strong-minded American playwright and sometimes indie filmmaker, Neil LaBute, as this “Funeral’s” director. Yes, the movie does feel like it derives from a play — with one set and everything happening in real time — so it draws upon LaBute’s theatrical background. He certainly does a decent job keeping improbable sequences coming at a steady pace, with all actors hitting their marks in style.
But nothing taps his own particular talents to unsettle audiences with truly edgy material. “Funeral” gets no more edgy than a potty joke and a corpse tumbling out of a coffin. This is nothing more than juvenile slapstick.
LaBute moves his cast and crew well in and around a handsome set designed by Jon Gary Steele. Rogier Stoffers supplies fluid cinematography, and Tracey Wadmore-Smith’s editing smoothly integrates the deteriorating situations from the rooftop to the graceful gardens below.
Opens: April 16 (Screen Gems)
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