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Death at a Funeral

a DVD review by Heather Craig

Soon after a friend recommended the 2007 British farce Death at a Funeral to me, I read that, in Hollywood’s inability to believe that Americans will watch anyone but Americans in movies, this movie is being remade with a 2010 release date. Then I decided I had to see the original for myself and I’m glad I did. While the comedy is definitely dark and not always in the best of taste, it is comedy. This is a funny movie.

We begin with the solemn arrival of a coffin to an English country home for a funeral. However, when the coffin is opened and a character looks inside and then asks, “Who’s this then?”, we get an idea of what the tone of the movie will be. (The correct coffin is delivered before the ceremony begins.)

The story is very convoluted, in the way of most drawing room comedies, but at heart, it is the characters that make it funny. We have our main character, the son of the deceased, Daniel (Matthew Macfayden, MI-5, Pride and Prejudice), a tentative, aspiring writer, long in the shadow of his successful author brother, fretting and fussing over an eulogy that everyone expects the other brother to deliver. Daniel’s wife, Jane (Keeley Hawes, Macfayden’s fellow spy in MI-5 and real-life wife), is so anxious to move from the country to a flat in town that she can’t stop mentioning it, even for the duration of a funeral. Daniel’s cousin Martha’s  fiancé, Simon (Alan Tudyk, Firefly, Dodgeball) is so nervous about seeing Martha’s father at the funeral that he accepts when Martha insists he take a valium from her brother ’s apartment. Unfortunately, the pill is a bit more than a valium, which we first realize when Simon asks, “Why are my hands so big?” while Martha is trying to discuss the funeral with her brother in the car. We also have the mysterious presence at the funeral of Peter (Peter Dinklage, Elf, The Station Agent, and also featured in the 2010 American remake of Death at a Funeral), assorted relatives and friends, and the disabled Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan) whose bad temper and need for assistance with his wheelchair make for a lot of gags.

There ensues such crazy hijinx (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence) that you have to pay attention to keep up with who knows what secret and is keeping it from whom, which character is attempting to blackmail which other and why, the minister wanting to hurry up so he can rush to his next appointment, and Martha trying to keep the hallucinating (and for half of the movie, naked) Simon away from her scowling father, and all this while everyone attempts to maintain a distinctly British funereal decorum. With all this going on, it is no wonder that everyone forgets that Uncle Alfie has been left in the bathroom.

The plot is funny, if dark, and it actually makes sense. While everything is certainly very exaggerated here, I believed that these people would react in somewhat this way, should this series of events occur with such rapidity in real life.  Things are quite overblown, but this happens in every comedy. As in any movie, the trick is whether we are engaged with what the characters are going through, and I was. I wanted Daniel to get some long earned respect, and I wanted Simon to get himself together, even though Simon’s very much NOT being together is the hinge of the more obvious gags. I could’ve done entirely without Uncle Alfie’s desperate need of a toilet, but you can’t have everything.  However, the side-characters are completely one note, existing for a specific purpose. The clearest example of this is Martha and Troy’s father, existing only to disapprove of them both and be loudly horrified by Simon.

The movie is directed by Frank Oz, who may be best known as a director for things like Bowfinger and In and Out, but is best known overall for his work with the Muppets, from Sesame Street to the Muppet Show, and most famously, the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Oz knows how to set the stage, and the short cuts between characters as more and more goes wrong effectively escalates the frantic mood.

Special features include two commentaries, and a gag reel which demonstrates that the actors evidently had a hilarious time filming the movie. It shows.


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