Funerals are a rather strange thing. Here we are, having to grieve openly out in public, surrounded by people we either haven’t seen in a while or have never met at all. There’s a rush of emotions one starts to feel, having to remember somebody’s life, and all the memories come right back as if they happened yesterday. There is sadness, grief, suffering, and regret. But the one emotion you don’t expect to find is humor.
Death at a Funeral is the sort of film where whatever can go wrong absolutely will. The story is pretty simple on the surface, and can be basically summed up by the word “funeral” being in the title. You know that’s where this movie is set — but it takes that rather dreary setting and makes it funny.
“I don’t consider anything British or American. I just do what I believe is best, what hits me right. I don’t think about what’s funny in Britain, or what’s funny in America. I wouldn’t know, so I just do what my gut tells me to.” – Frank Oz
The funeral is that of brothers Daniel and Robert’s father, and the event itself serves as a backdrop for the antics of the mourners, given the dark contrast of it being the worst possible place for anything else to be happening. Things take a turn from the typical when a mourner (played by Peter Dinklage) reveals himself to Daniel as having been his father’s lover — with photos to prove it. He is asking for $15,000 pounds, or else he’s going to expose the dark truth to everybody else in attendance.
Pill-popping, sibling rivalry, extortion, a gay love affair, skin rashes, a salty old man confined to a wheelchair, a naked man who won’t come off of the roof, and (yes) fecal matter are all present in this rowdy “comedy of errors.” It’s one of those movies that has a seemingly endless amount of working components and subplots that make it all up. Just when you think you’re all caught up, another one is thrown into the mix for you to keep score of at home.
“I believe that there’s room for quiet moments and dark moments and shadows, and all these things you’re not supposed to have in a comedy.” – Frank Oz
Strong ensemble comedy pieces are nothing new, either. From Animal House to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, to literally every single Christopher Guest film, it’s something we have seen before — but it’s the content of the material here that keeps it fresh, and keeps it from going stale, as it could have in anybody else’s hands.
Speaking of which, we must mention this film was directed by the great Frank Oz, who is no stranger to dark comedies (Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob). The most important thing that could make or break any dark comedy is having it in the hands of a director who is capable of hovering on the line between tasteful and tasteless. There are so many points where a film could go too dark, to the absolute point of no return. Here, Oz is able to hone in on all of the moments that can make you uncomfortable, without ever taking it past the edge. But he walks right up to it.
“I was looking for a low budget movie to do, where I could just work with some actors in a room, as opposed to huge sets and locations and CGI. I didn’t want all that. I wanted to get back to the heart of the movie.” – Frank Oz
A movie like this could easily go for the obvious jokes (which it certainly does it’s share of), but there is plenty of subtlety here, dry witticism that you are hard-pressed to find in any other movie that features the obligatory body-falling-out-of-the-casket sequence.
The film is truly held up by the performances, though. Surely, Alan Tudyk receives a lot of props for his performance as Simon, a character who mistakenly takes acid when meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time. But what is often overlooked are some of the other performances: Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Daniel, is at the center of it all and has the often-thankless task of being the straight man. He is truly the glue that holds the insane asylum together, having to simply make the best of it. But he never loses control. He always gives off a sense that he is steering the ship, just as it begins to veer off into waters unknown.
The film proved to be a favorite among critics and audiences overseas upon its release, as well as with critics in America, but nobody really went to go see it. In 2010, they remade the film, nearly shot-for-shot, with a cast that included Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Peter Dinklage, reprising his role. This brought further attention to the 2007 British film version, which has become something of a cult film in recent years. And as of now, it is finally beginning to garner the attention that it rightfully deserves.