Death Oughtta Be Funnier

Corpses fall out of caskets and gay skeletons tumble out of closets in “Death at a Funeral,” a mildly amusing brown, not black comedy. That's brown as in shit-brown, as one of the more riotous sequences deals with someone handling feces.

By: GARY M. KRAMER | Corpses fall out of caskets and gay skeletons tumble out of closets in “Death at a Funeral,” a mildly amusing brown, not black comedy. That's brown as in shit-brown, as one of the more riotous sequences deals with someone handling feces.

Granted, not all the humor in “Death at a Funeral” is bathroom-crude, but neither is all of the film's humor funny. In this uneven comedy, there are about as many jokes that miss as hit.

It takes a good half hour for everyone to be introduced and assembled. Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) is the put-upon son, anxious to buy a place with his wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) and move out of his mother Sandra's (Jane Asher) house. His brother Robert (Rupert Graves) lives in New York, and is a successful novelist who somehow does not have any money.

As much as people are upset by the untimely passing of their father, there is considerable distress that Daniel, not Robert the writer, is giving the eulogy.

Also attending are Martha (Daisy Donovan), the deceased's niece, along with her fiancée Simon (Alan Tudyk), who has inadvertently taken hallucinogens that Martha mistook for valium, and Howard (Andy Nyman), a hypochondriac who gets saddled with caring for Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), a foul-mouthed old relative in a wheelchair.

Rounding out the major players are an impatient reverend (Thomas Wheatley) and a mysterious stranger named Peter (Peter Dinklage).

As the funeral gets underway, Howard fights stupidly with Martha over a parking space, and Daniel begins his eulogy. This is soon interrupted by Simon's drug-fueled outburst that delays the ceremony further. It would spoil some of the jokes to reveal the pandemonium that is created, but suffice it to say, Simon ends up naked on the roof, and Peter is literally tied up in the study.

If the farce in “Death at a Funeral” is a bit strained, it may be because this British-based film is directed by an American, Frank Oz. The expected dry English wit is mostly lacking, save for a few choice lines, such as one in which a sympathetic Martha asks the grieving Sandra if there is anything she can do, and Sandra tells her not to get fingerprints on the casket.

For the most part, however, the film is broadly played, and all too often over-exaggerated. The worst offender is Andy Nyman's Howard. His character is one of those slow burn/short fuse types, and his frustration at having to deal with his uncle, or his worry about skin discoloration, is well, frustrating to watch. While Howard's bumbling idiocy works just adequately when he is deliberately trying to delay the reverend at a crucial time, other scenes, such as his attempt to console Sandra, are painfully unfunny, and smack of trying way too hard.

The other British actors seem wasted as well. Rupert Graves is given far too little to do as Robert, and Matthew MacFadyen who plays the calm center coming unglued never quite gets the chance to really rip loose.

The best performances are given by the Yanks in the cast. Alan Tudyk

displays some sidesplitting comic expressions as Simon experiences the effects of the errant hallucinogens, and he is well matched by Daisy Donovan, as the tightly wound Martha. Both actors makes strong impressions, as does Peter Dinklage, who is deliciously deadpan in his role. Unfortunately, Dinklage is saddled with one of the film's weakest parts. Will this fine actor ever again get a part as good as he had in “The Station Agent?”

The irony of “Death at a Funeral” is that as one character says, “Grief does strange things to people.” Significantly, the real purpose of the funeral here is to act as a catalyst for all of the characters to experience a rebirth, and become better people, and live their lives more honestly. The message may come across, but it sure is heavy-handed.

If the film does not exactly give the deceased a dignified send off, it provides audiences with a few chuckles. Alas, given the opportunities for laughter, there should have been more fun at this funeral.

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