With a circus parade of mourning Brits and enough appalling circumstances to set proper Englishness back to the Dark Ages, “Death at a Funeral” pits decorum against sex, drugs and dysfunction. The winners? Auds who know you laugh hardest when you’re not supposed to, and who appreciate the humorous qualities of embarrassment, blackmail and the twitting of the upper classes. Box office will likely be modest, but reaction will be strongly positive.
Frank Oz’s first feature since his “Stepford Wives” remake stars Matthew Macfadyen (“Pride & Prejudice”) as Daniel, the type of Brit who can’t decide whether to mourn his father or be embarrassed — death, after all, is such an inconvenience for everyone.
Daniel is indecisive by nature: He’s promised his wife (Keeley Hawes) that they’ll soon move out of his mother’s (Jane Asher) house, and that he’ll finish his years-in-the-writing novel. But it looks doubtful.
When the undertakers bring the wrong body to the house, Daniel nearly expects it, since the whole affair is shaping up to be a disaster. Not helping matters is his brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist who was born to drive Daniel mad with envy.As it turns out, Robert is the least of Daniel’s problems. Soon he finds himself with a second body to dispose of, while his mother grows impatient with being cheated out of the dramatic spotlight.
Depending on one’s tolerance for matters scatological, “Death” may go a bit over the top, with Oz betraying an American gift for comic extremism. That said, the two central riffs are wonderfully played: In one, the painfully conservative Simon (Alan Tudyk), fiance of Daniel’s cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan), accidentally ingests a powerful hallucinogen created by Martha’s brother, Troy (Kris Marshall). This turns Simon into a trouser-dropping lunatic guaranteed not to win approval from Martha’s already disapproving father, Victor (Peter Egan).
The other subplot involves a mysterious, diminutive fellow (Peter Dinklage) who arrives with a secret about Daniel and Robert’s father. This secret might distract from the funeral entirely, if Simon weren’t already naked on the roof.
The tension in “Death at a Funeral” is between good manners and good comedy, something Oz exploits throughout. Humor has a decided British accent, given that it’s all about making genteel people cringe; one can hardly imagine the same movie set in Brooklyn, for instance, unless it were a docudrama.
Among the standout performers are Donovan, whose Martha has the intriguing capacity to stress out about an ungenerous father and a raving fiance at the same time. Macfadyen is also quite good as the stalwart husband whose promises to his wife are going up in smoke.
Though modestly produced and efficiently shot, pic boasts solid production values.