“Death at a Funeral” is a strained, mirthless remake of a comedy that wasn’t terribly funny to begin with. More or less transferring Frank Oz’s same-titled 2007 British farce to a middle-class African-American household, with little appreciable gain in laughs, this work-for-hire from once-provocative helmer Neil LaBute should have little trouble outpacing its predecessor, which dug up about $9 million Stateside. Cast names including Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Martin Lawrence will lend the pallid Screen Gems item some crossover potential.
Not three years in the grave, Oz’s original played on the tension between stiff-upper-lip British reserve and the ghastly shenanigans that erupted — quite literally, in the case of one elderly character’s bowels — at that most solemn of family occasions, a funeral. But this slavishly faithful update, again written by Dean Craig (who seems to have exhumed his original script and added a few jokes about Louis Armstrong and R. Kelly), fails to tap into anything culturally specific or uniquely funny in its Pasadena setting or its theoretically looser, livelier black cast. And because the characters are so flat, we couldn’t care less about the blows to their sense of propriety.
Proceeding from the notion that outrageous situations and dilemmas, presented with minimal flair, preparation or timing, will yield automatic hilarity, “Death at a Funeral” kicks off with the delivery of the wrong corpse (cut to face of dead Asian in coffin) at the funeral in question. It’s the first of many setbacks for poor Aaron (Rock), who’s struggling to compose his father’s eulogy and also has to deal with an emotional mother (Loretta Devine), an ovulating wife (Regina Hall) and an annoying younger brother (Lawrence) who has the successful writing career Aaron’s always dreamed of.
Rounding out the roster of insensitive/neurotic/foul-mouthed funeral attendees are Aaron’s cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), frantically trying to hide the fact that her fiance, Oscar (James Marsden), has ingested some powerful hallucinogens; hapless family friend Norman (Morgan), who gets stuck wheeling around crotchety Uncle Russell (Danny Glover); and, weirdest of all, a diminutive man in a leather jacket (an amusing Peter Dinklage, who played the same role in the Brit version) who comes forward to disclose an alarming secret — that’s not much of a secret, thanks to the film’s trailer and P&A — about the deceased.
Spinning into laboriously plotted chaos (with much busy cross-cutting by editor Tracey Wadmore-Smith), pic seems predicated on the idea that stale gags will somehow improve with repetition. Thus, Devine’s weeping widow must take every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate, to mention her daughter-in-law’s barren condition; nincompoop Norman must inform every guest of his unpleasant skin condition; and doped-up Oscar must get higher and higher until he winds up naked on the roof.
While LaBute’s previous pic for Screen Gems, “Lakeview Terrace,” managed to infuse a thriller template with some of his trademark barbed misanthropy, “Death at a Funeral” may be the most anonymous commercial product yet to bear the director’s signature. (Given how central race relations were to “Terrace,” it’s odd that he couldn’t mine any fresh comic tension from a movie in which the three white characters, played by Marsden, Dinklage and Luke Wilson, are the minority.) The hollowness of the sentimental, life-affirming ending is just about the only thing to suggest LaBute’s presence behind the camera.
Rock, one of 11 producers on the project, undercuts his comedic strengths by casting himself as the Henry Fonda-like straight man. Though given some execrable scenes, Marsden deserves a good-sport award for his physically unhinged turn, and Morgan, being Morgan, manages to score a few chuckles. Other thesps do passable work with what they’re given.
Pic boasts noticeably dimmer, more amber-tinted lighting than the original (not seen to good effect at the Arclight Cinerama Dome premiere).