April 16, 2010

Death at a Funeral

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Grade: B –

Director: Neil LaBute

Starring: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Regina Hall, Zoe Saldana, James Marsden, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, and Peter Dinklage

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

For those wondering why there’s a remake of Death at a Funeral a scant three years after the original’s lackluster release, look no further than Neil LaBute. While the first film bore the novelty of a British comedy directed by an American – Frank Oz – and starring several American actors, the follow-up distinguishes itself in two principal ways. First is the African-American bent of a splintered, somewhat dysfunctional family brought together on the occasion of the passing of one of its patriarchs.

The other is LaBute, hardly a household name whose legacy as a director was cemented in the minds of movie critics and indie film fans by his audacious debuts, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. His two-headed monument to modern-day misanthropy both conceded and laid bare a world of masculine survival of the fittest, where sadism and masochism thrive and the meek inherit nothing but personal and professional sorrow. They were depressing to watch only because they carried an uncomfortable, cynical truth. In the minds of many, they were brilliant.

Of course, even brilliant cynicism wears thin over time, for moviegoers, producers, and even the filmmaker himself. So, as LaBute has flailed about the last decade looking for different directions to point his talents, the quality of that work has precipitously dropped – Possession and The Wicker Man remake, for goodness sake?! Beginning in 2000 with Nurse Betty and resurfacing with Lakeview Terrace, LaBute has shown a recurring curiosity for the contemporary African-American experience, an interest he revives in Death at a Funeral.

On the day of his father’s funeral, Aaron (Chris Rock) finds himself at a personal crossroads. He is the older son who remained at home while his younger, more popular brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), made his way in the world as a somewhat successful author. Aaron and his wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), live in Aaron’s parents’ house under the mindful eye of his mother (Loretta Devine) and her blunt demand for a grandchild. The funeral also brings together an assortment of family and friends. There’s old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), who basically eats, sleeps, and swears a lot (actually, everyone swears a lot; it’s a Neil LaBute film). There are family friends Norman (Tracy Morgan) and Derek (Luke Wilson), who still pines for Cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), who is now dating Oscar (James Marsden), much to the chagrin of Elaine’s dad (Ron Glass). And, then there’s a mysterious, diminutive stranger, Frank (Peter Dinklage, who starred in the British original), who reveals a furtive relationship with the dearly departed.

You get the picture, and so does LaBute, who gives lip service to a potpourri social dividing lines – racial, gender, age, class, sexual orientation, and familial strife. None of them are enough to give Death at a Funeral any particular import – it’s far too slapsticky for that. But, they strike enough familiar chords to conjure that edgy, discomfiting LaBute ethos.

The two most restrained actors are the ones you’d least expect, Rock and Lawrence. LaBute wisely leaves the hijinks to others, including Morgan, Glover, and especially Marsden, whose scene-stealing antics after Oscar unwittingly drops acid carry the movie until their 20-minute or so screen-life expires and begin testing the audience’s patience.

While the film is briskly paced at an efficient 90 minutes, its premise begins to wear thin by the last half-hour. And, LaBute too often goes the Farrelly brothers route by relying on the crutch of scatological snickers. Still, it’s an entertaining farce that works best when it thinks least. Death at a Funeral is anything but DOA, but it is hardly the long-awaited second-coming of Neil LaBute’s career.

Neil Morris

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