“Death at a Funeral” is the kind of movie that inspires anticipatory eyeball-rolling–you feel like you’ve heard permutations of its punch lines in craftier incarnations numerous times before, even as it’s just getting going. This hunch was confirmed when I was cued to chortle mightily at the incongruous impropriety demonstrated when one of the characters screams out the car window after a driver cuts her off, “We’re on our way to a funeral, you wanker, don’t you have any respect?!”
Hewing closely to the preciously cheeky British comedy standard, director Frank Oz focuses on a family as they come to pay their last respects to the patriarch–a ritual, which, natch, devolves into a daffy, disastrous reunion, set amidst one of those outrageously picturesque, vine-covered English estates, the better for the requisite farcical slamming in and out of doors to take place.
The film’s cast of eccentrics (watch them work through their issues!) includes the two sons of the dead man, an aspiring writer named Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and successful author Robert (Rupert Graves); a lawyer (Alan Tudyk as a gleeful Simon) unhinged after having mistakenly ingested a hallucinogenic substance in lieu of valium, thoroughly spoiling his knickers-in-a-twist fiancee’s plan to impress her father; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughn), a crotchety, cussing old man one’s expected to find absolutely adorable. The actors uniformly ape and exaggerate the tendencies of stock movie characters rather than root them in reality, so when a mysterious little man (Peter Dinklage, unable to work his charismatic magic under such constraints) with unknown relations to the deceased appears, and confronts Daniel with some photos establishing an affair with his father, you know it will only go downhill from here.
Trying too hard to hit its hijinks marks, “Death at a Funeral” hams up its homophobia in bids for bigger laughs as Daniel and Robert go to ridiculous lengths to cover up the shame of their father’s gay relationship. The cringeworthy conceit is compounded by maudlin showmanship when the entire trying day boils down–or builds up–to one incredibly reductive scene wherein Daniel (no, not literary lion Robert, as everyone had hoped) delivers the eulogy. Casting aside his index cards, he steps out from his brother’s long shadow and improvises what is meant to be taken as an eloquent oration (judging from approbatory reaction shots), though it dabbles in trite sentiment along the non-eureka lines of “the most important thing is to have tried.” Smugly believing itself edgy where it’s laughably fusty, bold and original where it’s insipid, this final send-off is a microcosmic display of what’s wrong with the whole damn thing.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]