This movie is a real puzzler—not because it’s a whodunit but because it raises so many questions. Why did anyone think it necessary, or even desirable, to remake a thoroughly mediocre British farce only three years after the original’s release? And why would Neil LaBute, an extraordinary writer and talented—if variable—film director, agree to take on such an unpromising project?
The answers to such queries—and lots of others, most likely—would probably be more interesting than the second-generation “Death at a Funeral,” which transplants Daniel Craig’s script (adjusted, of course, by uncredited hands) from Blighty to Los Angeles and replaces the English family grieving the loss of their paterfamilias with an African-American one. It retains the major comedic elements; indeed, the most significant alteration is that all the characters’ names are pointlessly altered. The most notable one is that a diminutive fellow (again played by Peter Dinklage) shows up claiming to have been the dead man’s gay lover and demanding money to keep quiet about it; that plot thread culminates in the corpse’s two sons (played here by Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence) thinking they’ve killed the blackmailer and trying to dispose of his body.
But there’s also the smoldering hostility between the brothers. And a romantic triangle of sorts between their cousin (Zoe Saldana), her fiance (James Marsden) and the guy (Luke Wilson) her father (Ron Glass), an arrogant doctor, prefers; that situation collapses into slapstick when the fiance unwittingly takes a hallucinogenic drug provided by the girl’s brother (Columbus Short) and goes bonkers, ultimately stripping naked and gamboling about on the roof. Add to the mix an acerbic, wheelchair-bound uncle (Danny Glover) and a put-upon family friend (Tracy Morgan) who’s reluctantly enlisted to see to the old man’s needs, and a preacher (Keith David) anxious to get the wake on the road, as well as a widow (Loretta Devine) who relentlessly insults her daughter-in-law (Regina Hall), and you have a full complement of wacky characters careening around like spheres in a comic contraption that’s supposed to be the cinematic equivalent of a pin-ball machine.
But even in its first incarnation, Craig’s script was a pretty feeble take on the sort of cascade-of-complications contrivance that’s fueled French bedroom farces for generations (propelled by the same slamming doors much in evidence here), and the effort to shuffle the various threads together by editor Tracey Wadmore-Smith results in exhaustion rather than effervescence—particularly in the sloppily sentimental coda. And apart from the addition of some obligatory references to black culture, surprisingly little is made of the relocation to the Pacific coast. Particularly odd, in view of the sort of interests LaBute has previously shown in “Lakeview Terrace,” virtually nothing is made of the fact that the cousin’s two suitors are both white; the only race-specific observation comes when one brothers notes that the other’s concern about their father’s secret life seems to have more to do with the fact that his lover was white than that he was a man. As a result the casting of Marsden and Wilson comes across as a kind of curious tokenism without any payoff.
And the gags, sadly, are way past their prime. Overturned coffins and exposed corpses are flabbily farcical, and the idea of a guy accidentally getting high and going off the deep end is moth-ridden. (One has to feel sorry for Marsden enduring the humiliations it involves, though he seems to be having a good time mugging to beat the band.) Some literally excremental business involving Glover and Morgan is more repulsive than funny, and overplayed so broadly by the stars and LaBute that it almost invites you to avert your eyes. Otherwise the director proves that he can choreograph this sort of stuff adequately, but his work is utterly anonymous.
As for the rest of the cast they do what’s expected of them. Rock and Lawrence make a colorless pair, Devine and David overplay badly, and Glass makes one long for the wit of “Barney Miller.” Dinklage could probably play his part in his sleep, and might as well be doing so.
As visually dull (thanks to Rogier Stoffers’ oddly dank cinematography) as it is comedically, “Death as a Funeral” is a flat retread of a comedy that was already moribund.