Death at a Funeral (2010)
When I was in college, I had to write a paper trying to explain why certain films were box office successes. It was 1998, and I surmised that the top 50 films as of the year’s end (in other words, final grosses were certainly not in by that point) were almost all formula; Buddy-cop, remake, sequel, disaster film, TV adaptation, etc. The only films that I deemed original were The Truman Show and Pleasantville, which turned out to be variations on the same concept, as the main characters are stuck inside a fanciful version of a TV show. I had not seen the highest grossing film of the year, which at that time was Armageddon, only having seen the trailer and TV spot which made the film look it could not be more generic and predictable.
I asked a friend who had seen Armageddon to either confirm or deny what I thought would occur, plot point by plot point, using only my limited knowledge of the film. It turned out that the trailer was absolutely truth in advertising, as I was able to figure out the entire film without seeing it. However, I didn’t think it was ethical to write about a film without seeing it and so I rented the DVD. I ended up falling asleep halfway through, the downside of watching a film like Armageddon at home is that you can always have the volume at a reasonable level. I also learned nothing from watching the film, my original thesis, that Armageddon was successful because it combined every possible formula that had worked in 1998 and shoved it into one 2 ½ hour package.
Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral, his remake of Frank Oz’s 2007 film (also in English, also featuring Peter Dinklage as a blackmailing lover of the deceased), is blessed with an Armageddon-worthy marketing campaign, there isn’t a single surprise in the entire film. LaBute, who has written and directed many a scathing and nastily misanthropic play, as well as the equally caustic and hilarious films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, was clearly a gun-for-hire here, probably the first time he’s been used in such a fashion (Nurse Betty, which he didn’t write, seemed to oddly fit his oeuvre). Whether he was doing penance for his histrionic remake of The Wicker Man (which doesn’t work as a movie, but is unmistakably a LaBute film through and through) or trying to get leeway to make more films that push the envelope, like his Lakeview Terrace almost did, even if it was hampered by a PG-13 rating, is unclear. From an outside perspective, if you wanted to remake Death at a Funeral, hiring someone like LaBute to darken what was originally a slapstick farce makes sense. However, I don’t think that hiring an almost all-black cast of mostly stand-up comics was what LaBute had in mind when he thought about darkening.
The problem isn’t just the obvious cynical one of selling the exact same movie except to a black audience, it’s that, working from co-producer Dean Craig’s script (who also wrote the original, and apparently hasn’t changed very much), actor-comedians like Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence try to turn their lines into stand-up routines, and the material doesn’t fit in the least. At certain points you can actually see Chris Rock the actor switch off and the comedian taking over. But Rock isn’t doing the social satire he does in his act, he’s talking about house payments, fraternal jealousy, and relatives at the titular family funeral that have sitcom level problems. Hiring talents like Morgan, Lawrence, and Rock to bring respectability to your cartoonish pratfall comedy is just a complete misconception.
Even the slam dunks don’t fall into place; Danny Glover’s curmudgeon horndog uncle doesn’t have anything funny to do, except to literally shit on Tracy Morgan’s hand and occasionally nod off when it’s narratively convenient [Oh, and he also provides a few Lethal Weapon references]. That Morgan spends the entire second half of the film covered in feces, including an extended bit where his face is smeared with it, doesn’t seem like a commentary on actors wearing blackface (or Brownface) while they shuck and jive and slam doors, but more like honesty about how he probably felt on the set*.
Morgan does get a line or two that work, he does a riff on how, because he’s so sensitive, he’d make a very bad Incredible Hulk, and James Marsden, stuck in a tired old bit where he takes “the wrong drugs,” has some inspired moments such as when he wraps his head in toilet paper until he looks like The Invisible Man. But the rest of Death at a Funeral is so achingly predictable, the family is made up of as many caricatures as humanly possible, the letch, the cuckold, the cheapskate, the moneygrubber, the oblivious mother, that the endless gay panic subplot seems oddly appropriate, since everything else is so by-the-numbers. Here’s to hoping that LaBute doesn’t get the impetus to remake Transformers 2 next.
* I was once at a discussion where Jon Lovitz, speaking about the film the group had watched just days before, Trapped in Paradise, said that he and the other actors on the set, such as co-leads Nicolas Cage and Dana Carvey, would refer to the movie as Trapped in Shit. I’m sure Lovitz, as a fellow Saturday Night Live alum, knows exactly how Tracy Morgan feels.