Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Movie Review: Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral ***
Directed by:
Neil LaBute.
Written By: Dean Craig.
Starring: Keith David (Reverend Davis), Loretta Devine (Cynthia), Peter Dinklage (Frank), Ron Glass (Duncan), Danny Glover (Uncle Russell), Regina Hall (Michelle), Kevin Hart (Brian), Martin Lawrence (Ryan), James Marsden (Oscar), Tracy Morgan (Norman), Chris Rock (Aaron), Zoe Saldana (Elaine), Columbus Short (Jeff), Luke Wilson (Derek), Regine Nehy (Martina), Bob Minor (Edward).

It is not uncommon for Hollywood to remake foreign films that were hits in their own country, but pretty much got ignored in North America. In fact, it is standard operating procedure. It is a little more uncommon to remake a British movie however – especially only three years after the original was an art house hit here – and even more uncommon to not change the screenplay at all. Dean Craig is the credited writer on both the 2007 British version of Death at a Funeral and this new one, and I doubt he changed very much.

The movie is about one day for a crazed family. The father of the family has died, leaving behind his grieving widow Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and his two sons, Aaron (Chris Rock) and Ryan (Martin Lawrence). Aaron is the older, more responsible brother. He is married to Michelle (Regina Hall) and has stayed at home to help his aging parents. He wants to be a writer, but hasn’t been able to make a go of it, and is making his living as an accountant. Ryan is leaving the life Aaron wants – bestselling author, living in New York. To make matters worse, everyone seems to love Ryan, even though he is completely irresponsible.

The extended family is gathering at the family house for the funeral. This includes cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), and her fiancé Oscar (James Marsden), who her father (Ron Glass) hates. To try and calm his nerves, she gives him what she thinks is valium, but is actually a hallucinogenic drug mixed up by her brother Jeff (Columbus Short). Then there is family friends Derek (Luke Wilson), who is still in love with Elaine, and Norman (Tracy Morgan), who is stuck picking up the wheelchair bound old grump Uncle Russell (Danny Glover). Finally, there is the strange visitor Frank (Peter Dinklage) that no one knows but says he needs to talk about Aaron about an urgent matter.

If you saw the original movie, then all of this will be familiar to you. I saw the film once when it was in theaters back then – enjoyed it – and then pretty much forgot about the film. Watching this version though, and it all came back to me. Perhaps this won’t be seen as a good thing by many people, but I was impressed that the filmmakers didn’t change the film around to match the readymade personas of its cast. Yes, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence throw out a couple of one liners that weren’t there in the first place, but their roles have not been altered to fit them. Instead, they have fitted themselves into the roles as written. While I don’t think Rock is quite as good of a straight man as Matthew McFadyen was in the original film, we does a fine job as the sturdy center of all the chaos around him. Playing an egomaniac is easy for Lawrence, and he does a good job here. The best performance in the movie, like it was in the prior movie, is in the Oscar role – with James Marsden hilarious tripping on drugs, climbing onto the roof naked, and causing a riot by insisting that the casket is moving. Peter Dinklage shows what a good sport he is by reprising the role he had in the original film – and doing an equally wonderful job of it this time around as well. The rest of the cast is also in fine form.

I could not help wondering two things while watching the movie though. What exactly is the point of it all, since we had a fine version just three years ago, and what the hell is Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) doing directing this film? The answer to the first question, if you are cynical anyway, would seem to be to make money. And yet, I have never been as down on remakes as a lot of people are. People forget that in the early days of cinema, they remade moves all the time – some of the best remembered movies ever were remakes (The Maltese Falcon is a great example). Hell, how many different versions of Shakespeare plays hit the stage every year? I’m not comparing Death at a Funeral to Shakespeare, but I have always found it interesting to see how the same material plays with different actors in the roles, different directors at the helm. You can make a remake your own if you are a great director (Scorsese’s remakes of Cape Fear and The Departed are good examples).

Having said all of that, when it comes to this movie, and director Neil LaBute, I find that LaBute pretty much just walks in Frank Oz’s footsteps. When LaBute emerged as a filmmaker more than a decade ago, it looked like he was going to become one of the best writer/directors of his generation. But he is becoming further and further removed from that promise with each movie. Death at a Funeral shows absolutely no ambition on his part as a filmmaker. But hell, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps LaBute was stung by the failure of his recent films The Wicker Man and Lakeview Terrace, and just wanted to recharge his batteries on some fluff. If so, fine. But Neil, it’s time to make a great film again.

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