April 16, 2010

Funeral is dead on arrival

I primarily judge a movie based on whether I would watch it again. Things like direction, writing, cohesion, and acting are all vital, but when the credits roll, the question I ask myself is, “Do I ever want to watch that again?” That’s just my barometer, though, and is by no means a rule; there are always exceptions.

But with a film like Death at a Funeral, a remake of the 2007 British film of the same name, rewatching seems redundant. Try and separate the remake from the original, and it boils down quite simply to: “I’ve seen this before, and it was done better then.”

For those familiar with the original plot, director Neil Labute, who is already familiar with remakes (see: The Wicker Man) gives us nothing new here except for a black cast, broader comedy, a feces gag, and a Hammond organ soundtrack.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the film sticks very close to the plot of the original, practically shot-for-shot.

It opens just before the start of a funeral of a family patriarch. Chris Rock plays the eldest son (Matthew MacFadyen in the original) set to deliver his father’s eulogy despite the family’s preference for brother Martin Lawrence, who enjoys success as a (pulp) novelist. Cousins Zoe Saldana and Columbus Short then arrive with Saldana’s boyfriend, James Marsden (Alan Tudyk in the original), who gets spectacularly high after ingesting a “not Valium” tablet mix of acid and ketamine.

Tracy Morgan enters the fray as a family friend charged with driving cranky Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) to the funeral from his retirement home. Hijinks ensue after Peter Dinklage, who reprises his role from the original, but with a new name, reveals to Rock that he was actually the patriarch’s gay lover and demands $30,000 for being left out of the will. Cash-strapped and dedicated to keeping the secret from their grieving mother and the rest of the family, Rock and Lawrence enlist the help of Short and Morgan. From there, things get out of hand once the bottle of “not Valium” gets involved.

Much commotion has been made over this film’s potential record as the fastest Hollywood remake in history. The original Death at a Funeral, directed by Frank Oz, was a distinctive and very English comedy in no need of improvement; you don’t look at that film and think, “An American version would greatly improve this story.” The purpose of a remake is really about the audience. Like the new version of Nightmare On Elm Street, the goal is not to improve but rather to reintroduce. Apart from Neil Labute, this is a film made for a black American audience by black performers in that it maintains an ethnic spirit that distinguishes it from the original. But beyond that and the lowbrow humor, its attempts to distinguish itself from the original end there. It’s packed to the brim with unoffensive pop culture laughs that will be dated in less than five years and cheap sexual and bathroom humor. Where the original was a delightful dark comedy, this one falls deeply into slapstick.

Rock and Lawrence outstretch themselves by playing exactly themselves; the millimeter gap that separates the actors from their roles here is merely the difference between their real names and their characters’ names. Danny Glover embarrasses himself by being too old for this shit, Tracy Morgan is underused and unfortunately restrained, while Luke Wilson is miscast as the Vince Vaughn–like ex-boyfriend of Zoe Saldana who, when played by Luke Wilson, comes off as a moping Wes Anderson sadsack.

The only actors to bring any kind of screen presence or nuanced delivery are Zoe Saldana, the actress going places (hopefully places far from Neil Labute movies) thanks to Avatar and Star Trek; Columbus Short, who mines some gold out of the generally rocky writing; and finally James Marsden, who clearly delights in playing the charming ham and is game for any kind of tomfoolery, including showing off his ass while dangling from a roof.

If the film succeeds commercially, it’s not hard to imagine a whole series springing up, perhaps with the Peter Dinklage character recurring in each as a secret gay lover con man. As I discussed afterward with a critic/friend with whom I saw the film, the next logical entry will be with a Hispanic family. Perhaps it will feature the likes of America Ferrera, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, and Edward James Olmos, with Danny Trejo as the crotchety old uncle.