Dead on arrival

New comedy is like one long sitcom — without the laughter

You know something is wrong when a movie is filled with some of the biggest black comedians in Hollywood and the white guy who played Cyclops in the X-Men (James Marsden) steals the show. And with lame LSD jokes, no less.

A black-cast remake of the 2007 British farce with the same title, Death at a Funeral stoops extra low for a few additional laughs, but ends up feeling just as stale, schematic and predictable as Frank Oz's original. Hollywood's designated misanthrope Neil LaBute (A Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) is the gun-for-hire director, delivering a snappier pace but only occasionally delivering the yuks. It's not entirely his fault. Dean Craig's sagging script is pretty dire, offering only a handful of comic set pieces. Oddly, Craig's contemptible view of family dynamics nestles right in with the rest of LaBute's work. Broad slapstick comedy, however, is new for this satirically minded playwright-filmmaker, leading him to paw ever-faster to keep the hamster wheel spinning.

Gathered together for his father's funeral, Chris Rock's extended and unwieldy family quickly falls into petty bickering and resentment-filled confrontations. There's his self-absorbed younger brother (Martin Lawrence), unappreciative mother (Loretta Devine), foul-mouthed uncle (Danny Glover), hypochondriac friend (Tracy Morgan), interracially engaged cousin (Zoe Saldana) and a cadre of clichéd acquaintances and relations. Oh, and there's a dwarf with a scandalous secret (Peter Dinklage repeating his role from the first film). Needless to say, less-than-tasteful mishaps ensue.

When you come right down to it, Death at a Funeral is a feature-length sitcom ... with foul language and gross-out shit jokes. And next to LaBute's Wicker Man remake, it's his funniest movie yet. Which is hardly a compliment. Craig's script views queers with the same hysterical anxiety as Three's Company, spinning homophobia into the justification for any number of moronic scenarios. And whenever the wafer-thin gay jokes begin to flag, drug-inspired silliness or fecal pranks take their place. What's truly amazing is that so many otherwise funny actors are rendered laugh-free. Morgan, when he's allowed to riff, lands a few hearty chuckles, but Rock is neutered as the straight man, and Lawrence doesn't bring home a single guffaw.

As coarse, obvious and labored as Death at a Funeral is, its 90 minutes mostly fly by. And while most of the actors fumble to effectively land a joke, they remain engaging and likable. In the end, LaBute's film proves that it doesn't matter if the cast is haughty and English or upwardly mobile and black — low-brow stupidity is color-blind.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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