Death at a Funeral



This review was written for the theatrical release of "Death at a Funeral." 

At its best, British farce should seem effortless. In "Death at a Funeral," the effort shows. Subplots are contrived and relationships pat. Yet this topsy-turvy funeral produces a number of smiles, giggles, pleasant guffaws and several solid, sustained laughs. Not a bad batting average as comedies go.

Director Frank Oz always has been adept at building a comedy when he has the right script, and young Dean Craig has given him, in his first produced screenplay, a loony dark comedy that jibes well with Oz's comic sensibility.

Other than Peter Dinklage, the mostly British cast is unfamiliar to most American moviegoers, which might hamper boxoffice a tad. But the spirited effort should pick up steam in North American cinemas as reviews and word-of-mouth slowly build an over-25 audience who appreciates comic jabs at British decorum, upper-class manners and thoroughly embarrassing situations.

The film tips its comic hand right away when a funeral home delivers the wrong body to the household of the dearly departed. No, things will not go well at the final rites for the paterfamilias of a large and somewhat divided British family. From that point on, Oz and Craig tiptoe through a minefield of taboos and traditions that do not so much mock the dead as the foibles and follies of the living.

Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), son of the deceased, still lives in his parents' comfortable country home with his wife, Jane (Keeley Hawes), who chafes under the not-always-subtle thumb of her mother-in-law, Sandra (screen veteran Jane Asher). She desperately wants to move out. Now.

Daniel, who has been writing and rewriting the same novel for several years, suffers in the shadow of brother Robert (Rupert Graves), a wildly successful novelist who has flown in from his New York penthouse for the funeral.

First cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) is bringing her fiance, Simon (Alan Tudyk, actually an American), who is anxious to make a good impression on her disapproving doctor father, Victor (Peter Egan). But Martha's brother Troy (Kris Marshall), a chemistry student with a penchant for making designer drugs, has created a powerful hallucinogen that Martha -- believing the pill to be Valium -- gives to the nervous Simon. By the time he reaches the funeral, he is blissed out and prone to shedding clothes.

Daniel's mate Howard (Andy Nyman), an uptight hypochondriac with an obsession over physical ailments, arrives with two fairly unwelcome guests: His friend Justin (Ewen Bremner), who is equally obsessed with Martha, with whom he had a one-night fling, and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), a cantankerous antique who has lost all sense of social decorum.

But who is that strange little fellow Peter (Dinklage) who shows up with a peculiar expression on his face and a secret that could tear the already estranged family apart?

Revelations and physical comedy arrive on an escalating schedule that reserves its more outrageous developments for the third act. The film at times does feel a bit airless, like a play caught on film, even though Oz moves the scenes of the many crimes and misdemeanors in and around the spacious house and its well-manicured gardens. One gag in particular might test the patience of those unamused by potty humor.

While there is no standout performance -- meaning that everyone has splendidly performed his character's faults to the comic hilt -- one most enjoys Macfadyen for bringing subtle drama and melancholy to the comic center of the tale and Tudyk for his bravery in performing in a state of delirium and quite often in the nude for so much of the movie.

Oz benefits from a solid crew of British craftsmen, who afford him sharp, well-composed cinematography (Oliver Curtis), a rich yet homey setting (Michael Howells) and stylish costumes (Natalie Ward).

MGM and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment present a Parabolic Pictures/Stable Way Entertainment production
Director: Frank Oz
Screenwriter: Dean Craig
Producers: Diana Phillips, Share Stallings, Laurence Malkin, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: William Horberg, Bruce Toll, Andreas Grosch, Philip Elway
Director of photography: Oliver Curtis
Production designer: Michael Howells
Music: Murray Gold
Co-producers: Josh Kesselman, Alex Lewis
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Beverly Mills
Daniel: Matthew Macfadyen
Jane: Keeley Hawes
Howard: Andy Nyman
Justin: Ewen Bremner
Martha: Daisy Donovan
Simon: Alan Tudyk
Robert: Rupert Graves
Peter: Peter Dinklage
Sandra: Jane Asher
Victor: Peter Egan
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R