Fantastic ensemble brings life to this 'Funeral'

Article Published: Apr. 26, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Fantastic ensemble brings life to this 'Funeral'

Chris Rock stars in 'Death at a Funeral.'

Director Neil LaBute's Death at a Funeral feels a lot like a play - it's set almost entirely in one location, as a slew of wacky characters gather to mourn the recent passing of the family patriarch.

The set-up is simple: Aaron (Chris Rock) and his wife, Michelle (Regina Hall), are waiting for relatives and friends to arrive for his father's funeral - the one his father insisted on having at home. Within half an hour he expects everyone from his famous brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a writer, to his absent-minded Uncle Russell (Danny Glover).

The person Aaron doesn't recognize is Frank, the midget in the trenchcoat (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent), who tells Aaron that if he doesn't pay $30,000, he'll show extremely incriminating pictures to their mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine). All the while, there's madness erupting all over the house.

Above all, Death at a Funeral has two major things going for it: Fantastic acting and excellent timing. LaBute - who was a playwright before he ventured into films with the vicious In the Company of Men - understands how stage comedy works and keeps the action moving at all times, bouncing between characters dealing with odd situations in humorous ways.

The script - adapted by writer Dean Craig, who wrote the original Funeral released in 2007 - really fleshes out all the main players, creating rich characters with unique quirks. The humor is a result of how these characters react to these odd situations and none of the jokes feel forced - two signs of a really good comedy.

Funeral also succeeds with a lot of low-brow humor that might otherwise ruin a less intelligent movie, once again because the jokes are focused on the way characters react to disgusting, surprising or frightening situations and not the situations themselves. One subplot involves Oscar (James Marsden, Cyclops from X-Men), a boyfriend of the deceased's niece who is terrified of his future father-in-law, who is caught in the old "have one of these pills to calm your nerves" routine.

This routine, of course, always quickly evolves into the "those weren't Valium" conversations, as someone begins to act in trippy ways. While the routine has fallen flat in other movies - such as Harold Ramis' aspirin incident in Orange County - Marsden finds pure comic gold.

I'll note that I was completely surprised by Marsden's comic chops, but his performance is a complete revelation. After seeing him in several action films and a bad romantic comedy (27 Dresses), I never much cared when I saw his name on the credits - until now. I truly hope that he follows the route of John C. Reilly, moving from serious dramas like Boogie Nights to silly comedies like Talledega Nights. Granted, Reilly's great in dramatic roles, but he found a whole new career - and leading roles - in comedies like Walk Hard and Step Brothers.

The rest of the cast is hilarious, but for many of them it's expected (Rock, Glover and Tracy Morgan). The other pleasant surprise is that Martin Lawrence - an "actor" who can't act and a "comedian" who isn't funny - doesn't ruin the movie. This is surprising because he usually ruins movies, including: Blue Streak, Bad Boys, Big Momma's House, Rebound, Life, Black Knight, National Security and sequels made to any of those movies. His only good movie was Nothing to Lose, and that's just because Tim Robbins and Michael McKean kept the film's head above water.

But Labute keeps Lawrence low-key, quiet and reserved, entirely transforming the man from the second least-funny actor alive (behind Tim Allen) into a likable character. I even laughed at things he said!

This is a remake of a 2007 film that was directed by Frank Oz (What About Bob?) and also featured Dinklage in the same role. I chose not to watch it before seeing this film for the same reason I don't like reading books before seeing movies: My job is to review the movie itself, not compare it to a previous version, so I don't know if this Funeral is more or less funny than the original.

What I do know is that this Funeral is absolutely hilarious - I laughed throughout and, hours after seeing the movie, can't think of a single complaint. It's odd, witty, goofy and frequently offensive - if you're easily offended - but it's one fantastic ensemble comedy.

This is the kind of movie I usually recommend for "people who like comedies that make them laugh."

Death at a Funeral is rated R for language, drug content and some sexual humor. It is currently playing at the Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.

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