There is a fine line between your typical comedy and an all out, old fashioned broad farce. Both rely on humor to sell their snickers, but only one applies it in a slightly formulaic, wholly Hellsapoppin manner. Between unlikely situations, scandalous asides, abundant physical shtick, and lots of mistaken identity/ circumstantial coincidence, farce remains a clever combination of breakneck pacing and interpersonal anarchy. Usually reserved for the stage, there hasn't been a really good cinematic example of the genre since the days when Blake Edwards guided Peter Sellers through his Pink Panther moves. Now comes former Muppet man Frank Oz and his hilarious take on Dean Craig's Death at a Funeral. Featuring an amazing cast of British (and American) actors, and some of the smartest writing in recent film funny business, it's an all around enjoyable effort that gives Judd Apatow and his Knocked Up/Superbad/Walk Hard triumvirate a run for their money as 2007's best hilarity.
On the day of his father's funeral, mild mannered Daniel has to put up with quite a lot. His wife is still hounding him about their decision to buy a flat, while his mother is a devastated, slightly ditzy zombie. Brother Robert is in from New York, and carries with him an envy evoking celebrity reputation as a famous author and all around jet setter. Buddies Howard and Justin are coming in for support, and lucky them, they get stuck with transporting sick old Uncle Alfie for their troubles. Even worse, Uncle Victor's daughter Martha is bringing her new boyfriend Simon home to meet the family. While on the way, he gets an accidental dose of homemade hallucinogenic. Before long, he's making a scandalous scene. And the last straw? A four foot stranger named Peter shows up, and demands an audience with Dan. Seems he has some information on his Dad that will make the man wish for his own death at a funeral.
Gloriously black, totally biting in its wit, and unrelenting in its desire to please, Frank Oz's Death at a Funeral is one of the funniest films to come out in the last decade. It's a throwback to the days when proper English thespians would toss aside decorum and completely act the fool, where the Old Vic would meet the musical hall in a calculated compendium of off-color cleverness. Totally committed to this material, and believing in the ability of his performers to pull it off, Oz does some of his best work here - and this is the man who made his name bringing Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Bowfinger to life. Working outside his element (most of his films have been made in America) and smarting after the professional setback of the bewilderingly awful Stepford Wives, the voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, and a certain Jedi Master has really returned to form. Always slightly outsized with his designs, the direction here is lean, mean, and totally conformed to the needs of the narrative. There is never a wasted moment in Oz's attempt to bring Death's complexities to life - and the result really tickles the ribs.
Even better, the cast matches him convolution for convolution. Among the best are Texan Alan Tudyk as the stoned out of his gourd Simon. It's a role that could have easily gone goofball, turning into a caricature of drug-induced dopiness. But thanks to an amazing amount of control both in front of and behind the camera, Tudyk sells the situation. Equally amazing is Andy Nyman who plays the disheveled, hypochondriacal Howard. Hopelessly obsessed with issues regarding his own well being, he gets the movie's monster gross out when an elderly relative has a major, and messy, bowel movement. Make no mistake about it - Death at a Funeral is not some prim, proper collection of clever wordsmithing. Instead, Craig's crackerjack screenplay runs the gamut - from good natured riffing and ripe satire to all out nastiness and curse word confrontations. It's great stuff, especially when you have individuals as capable as Peter Dinklage (brilliant), Rupert Graves (insufferable), and lead Matthew Macfadyen (enlivening the usually thankless role of put upon straight man) to handle the hoopla.
This is the kind of movie that makes you smile as much as laugh, the terrific comic timing and pantomime professionalism merging to help your jaw line involuntarily beam. Oz is never obvious, never going for the patently cheeky or palpably outrageous. Sure, Death at a Funeral is wildly inappropriate, and loaded with situations that screech as loudly as possible. But it's also balanced by moments of detailed characterization, quiet instances where viewers have a chance to rest before the next chaotic volley. Proving once again that comedy is best written by someone who understands the inherent slapstick in human nature, and best helmed by a capable craftsman and creator of same, Death drives a stake in the vampiric pud-sucking stupidity that passes for onscreen chuckles nowadays. It's wonderful to see Oz back at the top of his game. Here's hoping he can turn this title into a considered cult classic, and parlay its plaudits into another string of box office treasures. As Death at a Funeral proves, his eccentric vision behind the lens has been missing for far too long.
How Fox ended up distributing this MGM movie is left to corporate merger experts to decipher. What's clear is that the notorious "screener only" studio is at it again, delivering an incomplete "review copy" for this critic to comment on. Overall, the image looks soft and frequently faded. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer also isn't helped by the random appearance of the Fox logo across the frame. Without final DVD product to ponder, no score will be given for the optical element presented.
The same sentiment applies to the sonic situation. Online tech specs suggest that Death at a Funeral will have a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound set up come B&M time. The audio aspects of the "review copy" are good, but decidedly non-immersive. The back speakers barely blip, and the most of the aural attention stays front and center. On the plus side, the all important dialogue is crystal clear.
Reviewers like to complain about the lack of real context when it comes to DVD bonus features. Most are indeed just pointless EPK like excuses to further market the film. In this case, Fox does give us a couple of excellent options. First and foremost, Oz is on hand for a wonderfully insightful commentary track. He goes deep into the casting and filmmaking process, pointing out moments of improvisation and his desire to keep author Craig on hand to tweak scenes when needed. It's a mutual admiration sentiment seconded by the screenwriter, who gets his own discussion with actors Nyman and Tudyk. The three get along like a house on fire, and their breezy conversation adds another dimension to the movie. Sadly, aside from a blooper filled gag reel and a collection of trailers, that's all the added content available.
After the abysmal comedy Antichrists of Good Luck Chuck, The Heartbreak Kid, Rush Hour 3, and Norbit, it's nice to find a proposed mirth-filled motion picture that's actually FUNNY. If you enjoyed such past Brit wit classics as A Fish Called Wanda or Withnail and I, you will truly love Death at a Funeral. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this is the kind of cinematic falderal that gets progressively better every time you watch it. Once the novelty of the farce format wears off, and the characters start coming to life, the viewer finds themselves locked in a race between the screenplay's rapier wit and the director's decided skill at silliness. If you wonder what happened to legitimate big screen buffoonery, here's the answer. It was merely waiting for experts like Apatow and Oz. If anyone can save the flatlining genre, these men - and their movies - certainly can.