[16 April 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Dad just insisted on having the funeral at home,” explains Aaron (Chris Rock) at the start of Death at a Funeral, the American version. It’s nice of him, really, to sum up the premise of the film in one line, so now you don’t have to wonder why anyone in this dysfunctional family has anything to do with what happens after. It’s about respect—honoring the dead man’s wishes and doing him justice as a family.
And with that smidge of sentiment out of the way, the movie launches into its real business: LSD jokes, barren women jokes, sex jokes, naked in public jokes, midget jokes, and poop jokes.
Pretty much everything about this movie is like Frank Oz’s 2007 original: the family members assemble at the fine Los Angeles house now owned by Aaron’s mother Cynthia (Loretta Devine), the same house he and his wife Michelle (Regina Hall) want to exit, as they’re closing on their own home next weed. This imminent move, on top of her repeated reminders that today’s a good day for copulation (“I’m on the last day of my cycle”), make for a special urgency in Aaron’s day—and yes, it will be a very long one.
As the oldest son, Aaron has devised a eulogy: its opening lines, which he speaks to himself again and again, suggest it is deadly dull, and a likely reason why he has been sitting on a novel for years, never even showing it to his wife. Aaron is also provided an obvious reason to be reticent concerning his book, namely, his brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a successful trashy novelist who’s jetting in from New York for the funeral. Trite and childish, their apparently unending competition casts Aaron in the uptight role, while Ryan is treated as returning royalty by everyone, including Cynthia, who literally knocks Michel to the ground in order to greet the prodigal. This moment—a startling bit of brutal slapstick—is only the beginning.
Director Neil LaBute (who worked with producer Rock on Nurse Betty) introduces the attendees in much the same way that Oz did: they’re en route to the service, driving and arguing and complaining. Aaron’s cousin Elaine (Zoë Saldaña) is coming with her super-bland beau, Oscar (James Marsden); when they stop by to fetch her designer drug maker brother Jeff (Columbus Short), a series of mistakes and bad choices lead to Oscar’s accidental dosing with a synthetic LSD, and oh dear, oh dear… well you can imagine the antics at the funeral. That Oscar loses his mind just as Elaine is hoping to impress upon her father Duncan (Ron Glass, who worked with LaBute in Lakeview Terrace, as another father who disapproved of a Caucasian son-in-law).
Elaine’s problems, much like Aaron’s, are multiplied by a guest she’d rather not see, her ex, Derek (Luke Wilson, looking as lumpy as he does in those whiny AT&T commercials), who insists—rather stalker-style—she return to him. Good thing she and other guests are soon distracted by the loud noises made by Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and the family friend assigned to push his wheelchair around, Morgan (Tracy Morgan). As before, a short person named Frank (Peter Dinklage, who played the same part in the first film) tries to extort money from Aaron in exchange for keeping secret his affair with the dead dad. The homophobic frame here is in line with the first film’s, as the two brothers’ horror at their father’s dressing up as a Dream Girl or partaking in whatever frightening intimacy the unseen photos evidence, is enough to lead them into a series of extraordinary, increasingly unfunny cover-ups.
However you might feel about the repetition of the plot, characters, and jokes (to be fair, some are refitted for this occasion, with references to perennial targets Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, as well as a couple of near surprises, the Bee Gees and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), the movie poses a couple of questions. First, how short on original or even close to original ideas must filmmakers be to reuse such middling material? And second, what ideas do these makers have about consumers of said material, retread or not? How are these choices? Who makes them and who benefits? It’s easy to make money off low so-called common denominators—Tracy Morgan’s face, aghast and spattered with shit—but maybe there’s something else to be done here, some other way to think about respect.