A well-made farce is like a catapult. It has to gather up a payload of respectable characters and fling them headlong into bedlam.
“Death at a Funeral” has a handful of uproarious bits, but overall it functions like the Acme Corp. catapult employed by Wile E. Coyote, dropping a boulder on top of the cast.
This is the first comedy from Neil LaBute, an acclaimed director of drama, and he doesn’t seem to have the hang of it.
“Death,” adapted from the 2007 English comedy of the same name, features Chris Rock as Aaron, the son handling all the arrangements for his father’s funeral. He’s resentful that his brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a successful novelist, won’t split the expenses.
Mom flagrantly favors Ryan, while casting a cold eye on Aaron’s wife Michelle, whose failure to produce grandchildren she sees as sheer obstinacy. Since Michelle’s biological clock is about to strike midnight, she wants hubby to get cracking even as the mourners arrive.
Among them are cousin Elaine and her boyfriend Oscar (Zoe Saldana and James Marsden). He’s not eager for another encounter with her cantankerous dad, so she slips him a Valium. The pill is actually a designer hallucinogen cooked up by her pharmacologist brother Jeff (Columbus Short), and Oscar is soon cackling and prancing like a gooney bird.
Also arriving are Elaine’s annoying old flame Derek (Luke Wilson), who with his buddy Norman (Tracy Morgan) has been assigned to transport ornery Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) from the rest home. Norman’s full-blown germ phobia and the wheelchair-bound retiree’s incontinence set the pair on a scatological collision course.
Add to the mix dear departed Dad’s very close friend Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original film) who has a stash of scandalous photos he’s willing to sell for $30,000.
The story plods, then drifts a bit, then plods some more. The problem is that the characters suffer from an unfortunate lack of personality. Admittedly, some funny things happen to them, but the film would be stronger if the players had distinctive traits that drove them toward aptly absurd situations.
The one who fares best, surprisingly, is Marsden, who is distancing himself nicely from the superhero/pretty-boy roles that casting directors want to box him into. He’s wonderfully off-kilter as the drug-addled Oscar, talking to garden statues and winding toilet paper around his head.
It’s a shame the rest of the cast couldn’t get on the same crazy wavelength.