Can a British black comedy about a family successfully translate to an American comedy about a black family? Bloody hell, yeah!
In 2007, the Frank Oz-directed Death at a Funeral was a funny, sardonic look at the drama that unfolds when loved ones return for a patriarch's final send-off. In addition to the situational humor that put the characters through the wringer, the rest of the laughter came from jokes buried in lines best spoken with a British accent. It was smart, witty and nuanced.
Carpet gaggers: (l to r) Lawrence, Dinklage, Morgan and Rock
(Photo by Phil Bray)
In 2010, now directed by Neil LaBute, all of Death at a Funeral's subtlety is stripped away until every joke is laid out as if in a coffin during a viewing. It's a different kind of humor, but still frickin' hilarious.
Also giving credit to Dean Craig as screenwriter, the new Death at a Funeral follows Aaron (Chris Rock) as he tries to balance the needs of the living with the need to bury his father. If his ovulating wife (Regina Hall), successful writer brother (Martin Lawrence), and cranky uncle (Danny Glover) weren't enough, a visit from his father's little friend Frank (Peter Dinklage) is enough to make Aaron want to crawl into the open grave and pull the dirt in on top of him. Mainly because Frank has come less with condolences and more to collect: Unless Aaron pays, the vertically challenged ex-lover of Dad is going to reveal the latter's life on the "down-low" and his penchant for dressing up like Effie in Dreamgirls.
It's this plot point, dead Dad's gay life, that makes Death at a Funeral's switch to an African-American family so fascinating. The down-low lifestyle adds a whole new element to the film's gay twist and provides the characters with a language to use and a world to reference. It also adds a layer of racial tension to the already outrageous scenario.
Even with all these shenanigans going on, it's the other stories that really generate the laughs. Cousin Elaine's (Zoe Saldana) boyfriend (James Marsden) takes a hallucinogenic drug by mistake and trips his balls off. Elaine's former boyfriend (Luke Wilson) is in attendance not to mourn, but to win her back. And Norman (Tracy Morgan) is stuck tending to Uncle Russell and his very demanding – and cranky – ways.
Once everyone arrives at the funeral, the film takes place in real time. Similar to an episode of 24, the frantic pace creates a kinetic energy that would be enough to revive the dead. Quick cuts (sometimes too quick) keep the different storylines moving along at brisk paces, and LaBute manages to give them equal value and weight. However, with such a quick set-up and outrageous scenarios, the humor level is set incredibly high, which is nearly impossible to sustain for the entire movie. While LaBute avoids the crash and burn, he has to continually increase the volume, sacrificing subtlety until this ''black'' comedy is just a comedy. That's not to say it doesn't work. In several instances the humor is improved from the original, and it just completes the transition into its own film.
With so many big names in one film, it's tough to highlight the best performances. Rock certainly holds his own even as Aaron is struggling to hold everything together. Lawrence plays the part of the younger brother (and jackass) with the right amount of sleaze, and Morgan is stupid and loveable, just as he is on 30 Rock. As the grieving widow, Loretta Devine and her breathy voice is a killer in every scene. But it's Marsden as the tripping boyfriend who demands the most laughs. Looking really good as he crawls around the roof of the house naked, he embraces the role's psychedelic turn with gusto.
Dinklage returns from the original film to again step into the blackmailing lover's tiny shoes, and seems to be enjoying the role very much. He too brings the humor forward and leaves the British restraint behind, but to do otherwise would have made his performance stand out (in a bad way) from the rest.
Unfortunately a feces joke makes the jump across the pond and, you guessed it, there's more of it this time. While most of the gay humor is intact and is never too insulting (really, who can get mad at references to The Golden Girls, Madonna and Dreamgirls?), some of the more tender moments between the former lovers, since one of them is dead, are going to be received as gags rather than touching. Or just cause gagging.
It's a testament to Craig's script and LaBute's direction that the normalcy that is restored once Dad is buried is what feels out of place. Makes you almost wish that Uncle Russell would kick the bucket so that the group can get together for another funeral.