Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral from a screenplay by Dean Craig (Caffeine), is a kind of comedy you don’t encounter much these days: the farce. It’s not being sold as such. Rather it’s being promoted as black comedy, but it’s really black comedy lite—where the viewer is allowed to laugh at inappropriate occurrences with no sense of guilt afterwards. The film is like a really good production of Charley’s Aunt—with a corpse and a few mildly daring themes thrown in. I’m not complaining, mind you. When the standard comedic fare these days largely consists of Saturday Night Live refugees proving that they’re even less funny on the big screen than they were on TV, a nicely structured, well-acted farce like Death at a Funeral is at the very least a minor delight.
The film is a bit on the plodding side in its first scenes. Viewers who are used to slapdash comedies that require neither setup nor structure may well find the beginning scenes of Death at a Funeral especially slow going. The humor is mild and a little forced as we witness the funeral home deliver the wrong expired gent to a very proper English country house for a very proper memorial service. It’s simply played too flatly, and it certainly pales in comparison to, say, Bryan Forbes’ much darker The Wrong Box (1966) with its coffin mix-ups and venal undertakers, who try to palm off a 3-foot box (“Get the flag, they’ll never notice”) as the remains of a loved one.
However, setup is an essential ingredient in farce. All the pieces have to be put into place before everything can start to go wrong. Oz and Craig realize this, just as they realize another key element of the form: playing more for expectation than surprise. Farce is virtually a clockwork mechanism or an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine where the humor comes from winding the thing up and watching the screwy—but very calculated—events unfold in a precise manner. In Death at a Funeral, this means establishing the tensions among the mourners, setting up the existence of a bottle of hallucinogenic drugs and bringing in a mysterious stranger. This requires care and patience, but if done right—as it mostly is here—the payoff is worth it.
The biggest blunder the film makes lies in its insistence that it’s funnier than it is before all the trappings are in place. As a result, some of the gags in the film’s first half—most notably those involving the stuffy lawyer out to make a good impression, Simon (Alan Tudyk, 3:10 to Yuma), who is accidentally high on drugs—are overplayed. For that matter, the film only marginally manages to make us care about the strained relationship between successful but irresponsible novelist Robert (Rupert Graves) and his brother Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen, Pride and Prejudice), a would-be novelist who is unsuccessful but responsible. Yet, this information is essential for one of the film’s best jokes.
Reservations apart, once everything is finally in place, Death at a Funeral springs to comedic life with such speed and assurance that it’s hard to complain, especially since the best gags are those that grow out of the knowledge gleaned in the first half of the film. Once the big gags start coming, Oz keeps them coming so fast—and so deftly—that everything works.
This is not a comedy of surprise—the only surprises come in the form of bits of clever dialogue. This is a comedy where the viewer sees the setup and then anticipates the results. For instance, we know that the “little guy” no one recognizes, Peter (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent), is bad news for the family. He wants to have a “talk” with Daniel. We’re not surprised when he turns out to be a blackmailer, and not even very surprised when the subject of the blackmail is revealed. What works are the various insane ways in which Daniel—subsequently joined by Robert and another family member, Troy (Kris Marshall, Love Actually)—try to deal with the situation, and the manner in which all their decisions and efforts are carefully constructed to lead to other anticipated disasters. This is where the film soars as ridiculous reasons, such as why Daniel finally balks at paying off Peter, and absurd notions, such as the idea that maybe no one noticed Peter (“No one noticed him? He’s four f**king feet tall!”), just keep coming.
Toss in a crotchety old uncle (the great Brit character actor Peter Vaughan), the wayward bottle of pills, a cheesy lothario (Ewen Bremner, Match Point), an uncaring vicar (Brit TV actor Thomas Wheatley), a conveniently roomy coffin and a pocketful of compromising photographs, and you have the recipe for a great farce—and a good time at the movies. Rated R for language and drug content