‘FUNERAL’ COMEDY A LIVELY ONE

A very strange thing happened to me at the theater this weekend. I sat through a comedy that was actually quite funny in places. I could hardly believe my good fortune after having to endure some of the sludge Hollywood tries to pass off as humor.

“Death at a Funeral” is a remake of a 2007 British film of the same name, and this time around it stars Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence in an at times hilarious movie that ultimately evolves into the funeral from hell. Although the movie may be a bit too bizarre for some, it is so outrageous in places that it produces plenty of laughs.

At the head of a superb ensemble cast, Rock and Lawrence portray brothers Aaron and Ryan respectively, whose father has died and who requested that his funeral be at home. Aaron still lives in the house where he grew up with his domineering mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), and his wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), who is constantly nagging him to get her pregnant.

Aaron is the older of the two brothers, and he desperately wants to publish a novel he has written to keep step with Ryan, who has several books in print. Joining the two brothers at the funeral are Oscar (James Marsden) and his fiancée, Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who is Aaron’s first cousin, and Uncle Russell (Danny Clover), a foul-mouthed old man intent on making everyone around him miserable. And there is also a mysterious little person named Frank (Peter Dinklage), who appears out of nowhere with some shocking news.

The film actually is divided into two parts, the first of which deals with the people arriving for the service and the second of which recounts the details of what turns into a complete disaster for the mourners. Although the film’s script is superb, it works as a comedy primarily because of the wonderful comic timing demonstrated all the members of the superb cast.

Devine is perfectly cast as the grieving widow who is not too broken up over her husband’s death to throw constant barbs at Ryan and Michelle about being childless. And Glover is terrific in his abbreviated role as the curmudgeonly Uncle Russell, and he even manages to pay homage to “Lethal Weapon” with one of his lines. In the film’s production notes, Glover explained how his character is one that will be familiar to viewers.

“Everyone has an Uncle Russell somewhere. I had an aunt like that and she would say stuff to me that was totally off the hook. I didn’t want to provoke her, so I always was very careful around her. People will look at this film and see themselves, see an uncle, see a cousin, see an auntie in all this, and it will become a moment for them to bond.”

Both Rock and Lawrence are accomplished comedic actors, and their performances reflect their experience and skill. Their scenes together exhibit an outstanding chemistry that underscores their believability as brothers, and Dinklage is a real hoot as the stranger who brings a bombshell to the funeral.

the guy who really steals this show is Marsden. His character is very nervous about going to the funeral because he knows that Elaine’s father hates him, an so to help him calm down, Elaine slips him a Valium from a bottle she finds in the bedroom. The only catch is that the pills are a hallucinogenic drug containing mostly acid, and Oscar’s ensuing trip is the highlight of the film. Marsden revels in his character’s hysterical mannerisms and facial expressions, and he manages to sustain the behavior throughout much of the movie.

Although some may find a film that pokes fun at a funeral offensive, I thought most of it was consistently funny. In the production notes, director Neil LaBute (“Lakeview Terrace”) explained his intention for the film.

“Expect to laugh. We take a sacred cow, the funeral, and lampoon it a bit. It’s a funny take on family dynamics at a moment of real stress. It’s also a meditation on what it’s like to have siblings and how a house can be torn apart by an event like a funeral. We took normal situations and made them completely abnormal, and it’s fun to watch that play out on the screen.”

“Death at a Funeral” (Give it a 7.5.) is a surprisingly effective comedy featuring some wonderful performances. The only thing I found disappointing about it was the inevitable inclusion of the seemingly obligatory feces humor, but I will admit that its approach was an original, albeit disgusting, one. Aside from this, I thought the fast-paced movie was constantly  entertaining with some humor that in places is drop-dead funny.

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