“I hate funerals, don’t you?” Poor Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), stuck with overseeing the rites for his dead dad, seeks confirmation of his discomfort with just about anyone who passes his way. Surrounded by unsympathetic mourners, however, Daniel spends most of his father’s funeral feeling apprehensive and offended. With the coffin on display at the cramped home he and his wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) once shared with his parents, and now, with his mother, Sandra (Jane Asher), Daniel looks forward to the day’s end. As tends to happen in ensemble farces, this end doesn’t arrive for a very, very long time.
At one level, time is the point of Death at a Funeral. Directed by Frank Oz (who, along with his work as Muppets’ voices, has previously demonstrated a gift for directing broadly conceived social-manners comedies, say, In & Out or Bowfinger), the movie offers a limited range of eccentrics, all struggling to maintain their reputations while also angling for improvements. Daniel and Jane, for example, reveal straightaway that they’re unhappy being saddled with the funeral’s costs, as they had been itching to move from their cottage to a larger space, imagining that their lives will expand with their abode. They soon learn that this isn’t likely, given that Daniel’s brother Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist who flies in from New York (first class), can’t help with the bill.
It hardly helps that Daniel fancies himself a writer as well, though he has never published. The brothers’ competitive relationship provides something of an emotional thread for the film, which splits into scenes showing Robert’s willful ignorance and insufferable self-regard, Daniel’s efforts to stiff-upper-lip his way through the day, and assorted relatives and guests who threaten to make life miserable for both.
As Robert avoids his brother’s gaze and Daniel concentrates on his much labored-over eulogy (which, based on the pre-performance bits you hear, promises to be dreadful), several bodies suffer indignities. (This begins at the beginning, when a wrong coffin is delivered to the site by the funeral home.) The fun includes the father’s corpse tumbling from its coffin in full view of horrified viewers and nearly into Sandra’s lap, as well as the drug-induced nakedness of sensible cousin Martha’s (Daisy Donovan) fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk) and the farts and poops produced by ancient Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan).
While each instance presents a new challenge for Daniel, who feels responsible for every detail of the day, as a collection of gags, they soon grow tiresome. The film is insistent on set-ups and pay-offs. As soon as Simon and Martha stop to pick up her brother Troy (Kris Marshall) en route to the funeral, you see what’s coming. Already established as nervous about meeting her family, Simon is quick to down what he thinks is a valium, from a container on Troy’s counter. You know, however, that Troy is a designer drug maker, and that he stores his hallucinogens in the valium bottle. In the car, Simon begins to sweat and to speak strangely. By the time they’re at the gathering, he’s full-on “weird,” chasing after butterflies and embarrassing Martha even as she means to announce their engagement to the stuffy group.
She’s further troubled by an ex, Justin (Ewen Bremmer), determined to pry her from her new “ridiculous man,” convinced that he need only turn on a charm that is so manifestly missing that his every scene entrance looks like a cartoon. Unfortunately, when Simon locks himself in the bathroom, Martha and Justin spend a little too much time standing about outside the door, as she tries politely and then obviously to put him off. In this as in other instances in Death at a Funeral, propriety is the absolutely wrong tack, inevitably leading to increased chaos and outrage.
Aside from the old man farting and pooping, the film’s most extreme aggravation emerges with a mystery guest, the uninvited Peter (Peter Dinklage), who threatens to expose dad’s secret life. Soft-spoken and persistent, he brings the brothers together in an effort to stave off certain public catastrophe. Peter has photos, he wants money, and he’s short. Oh, the hilarity.
Bodies show up everywhere they shouldn’t, making public what usually remains repressed: death, defecation, desire. That said, Dinklage and most everyone else hold up. Cast in an episodic and unadventurous plot, coming to conventional understandings (true love is good, selfish scheming is not), the movie’s assortment of quirky types play out their assignments with admirable energy, but all conclusions are forgone.