Some years ago Michael Frayn wrote an uproarious play called “Noises Off,” about the backstage personal conflicts that spell the deterioration of the performance of a bawdy bedroom farce over a long run. Told from the perspectives of both the audience watching the play and cast behind the scenes, it was a marvel of precise timing and interconnected action, and hilarious on the boards. But when it was transferred to film by Peter Bogdanovich in 1992, it fell flat. The medium simply doomed it by shoving the action into our faces and making the slapstick twists mere editing tricks rather than triumphs of carefully-calibrated choreography.
The same problem besets this British farce about the tumult that arises at a veddy proper wake when the family of the dead man (wife, two sons, assorted relatives) bicker, an elderly wheelchair-bound uncle makes trouble, the flustered reverend tries to keep things moving, a cousin’s fiance shows up unwittingly addled by drugs, another guy’s there merely to romance her, and—most importantly—an uninvited fellow, a little person no less, arrives with the claim that he was the deceased’s gay lover. (These are only some of the threads in the complicated scenario hatched by writer Dean Craig.)
One can see what Craig and director Frank Oz were aiming at, and they certainly assembled a cast that seems up for anything to play things out. Matthew Macfadyen goes through all the fussily twitchy moves expected of him as Daniel, the homebound son, who’s promised wife Jane (prim Keeley Hawes) that they’ll move out of his widowed mother’s (Jane Asher) house to a place of their own when his novelist brother Robert (Rupert Graves), in from America, pays his share of the funeral expenses. But wayward Robert, as it turns out, doesn’t have the cash at hand.
Meanwhile, after an opening calamity involving the wrong casket being delivered to the service, guests begin to arrive. There’s cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan), whose straight-laced fiance Simon (Alan Tudyk), already in the doghouse with her physician father Victor (Peter Egan), has mistakenly taken a recreational drug manufactured by her rascal brother Troy (Kris Marshall). And before long it’s turned him into a loony embarrassment. Then there’s buffoonish Howard (Andy Nyman), who’s saddled with Craig’s irascible uncle (Peter Vaughan), and his slimy pal Justin (Ewen Bremmer), who’s trying to woo Martha away from Simon. But the most disruptive visitor is Peter (Peter Dinklage), who claims an embarrassing relationship with Craig’s father and expects some financial consideration to keep it quiet.
What follows is an avalanche of slapstick comedy, a descendent of the sort of stuff that used to fill door-slamming bedroom farces like the one ridiculed by Frayn, but concentrating more on drug jokes, comic nudity and violence (and a bit of potty humor) than sexual situations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t generate the laughs the makers were going for, despite the fact that editor Beverley Mills keeps the various plot twists reasonably clear and Murray Gold’s music keeps italicizing the absurdities to tell us how amusing everything is. A major problem is that the situations Craig has devised just aren’t that funny—and sometimes vaguely unpleasant. The idea of a staid guy ingesting hallucinogens accidentally and then wigging out is old hat. And the notion of a corpse being “outed” seems dated nowadays. Worse, the entire business with Peter, which turns into a lot of pratfalls and a presumed homicide (culminating in an effort to get rid of a second corpse and bodies falling out of coffins), is an attempt at dark comedy that comes off more dark than comic.
That’s because Oz, abetted by cinematographer Oliver Curtis (whose work is otherwise pretty classy), stages things too close-in. Despite the attractive locations and generally effective technical contributions by production designer Michael Howells and art director Lynn Huitson, the fact that you can see the actors sweating as they go through their paces makes the picture seem strained and effortful rather than blithely lighthearted. For this sort of cascading comedy of errors and shattered decorum to work, as “Noises Off” taught only too well, one needs the proverbial distance that lends enchantment.
But the only distance involved in “Death at a Funeral” is the one you should keep from the theatre.