Neil LaBute's Death at a Funeral, based on the 2007 British movie of the same name (which I have not seen), is a passable funeral farce, with some good laughs interspersed with some at times boring complications and some more obnoxious hit-or-miss jokes which are sometimes funny.
The events of the film surround the funeral of the family patriarch, Edward (Bob Minor), whose not-so-carefully kept secrets occasion much of the slapstick humor. Most of the film is told through the experience of Aaron (Chris Rock), the oldest son, an aspiring writer living in the shadow of his brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a bestselling author.
Aaron is married to Michelle (Regina Hall, excellent), who wants a baby, to move out of Aaron's parents' house and to read Aaron's long-aborning novel. She also makes an effort to be there for Aaron's mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine, note-perfect), despite obviously having no rapport there.
Aaron himself is grieving for the father he loved (and thought he knew better) and is nervous about paying for the funeral and giving the eulogy.
Meanwhile, multiple seeds of angst and trouble get aimed toward the memorial service as more mourning friends and relatives converge. The great Ron Glass plays Uncle Duncan, the brother of the deceased, and with his son Jeff (Columbus Short, very good), a "pharmacology student," daughter Elaine (Zoe Saldana, excellent), her intended, Oscar (James Marsden, great), and a former boyfriend of Elaine's and golfing buddy of Duncan's, Derek (Luke Wilson, pretty good), constitute one main thread of craziness which runs through the picture. It might have raised the emotional stakes and smoothed the plot to make Elaine a daughter, rather than a niece, of the deceased.
Tracy Morgan is very good as Norman, a family friend with lots of theories he wants to expound upon and ask about, who gives Derek and Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), a ride to the service. Glover as Uncle Russell is almost in his own movie, and it seems slightly funnier than this one. And then there's "the dude in the leather jacket," Frank (Peter Dinklage, low-key but pretty funny), a mysterious friend of the deceased, who isn't really looking for hospitality and really doesn't find it. Dinklage reprises this role from the original movie.
Like this year's Youth in Revolt, this film probably goes to the drug well a bit too often for its humor. There's a point where a character drops a bottle of hallucinogenic pills on the ground, and I could swear it looked more like he threw them on the ground on purpose. Anyway, it made it quite clear there would be further drug complications, so not much surprise there. Nevertheless, Marsden's performance of Oscar's particular trip is always funny and played quite well.
Chris Rock is by far the least talented actor in the ensemble, and this unfortunately seems to unbalance the story a bit. It might have been more interesting if he and Lawrence had switched characters. There are moments when Rock is acting when all you can think of is the word "acting." He's given stronger performances before, even for this director.
Death at a Funeral has a lot to recommend it, but only lives up to about half of what one might expect from its potentially funny set-up and strong cast. If you're hungry for a comedy, and a fan of the actors, you'll likely leave pretty satisfied, if you're not too put off by some gross-out jokes or the times when it drags a bit.
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