Somewhere around 30 minutes into Frank Oz’s latest romp Death at a Funeral, a strange sense of déjà vu will wash over you. The gags are set up in a markedly Larry David-ian fashion, with several seemingly unrelated quirky events all eventually culminating towards one rip-roaring denouement. However, whether it be a result of audience familiarity with the form or just sloppy execution, such a method becomes readily transparent in this film and from the first “subtle” clue, you know exactly how it will pan out.
You see a man fill up a prescription bottle with hallucinogenic drugs and you know it will be mistakenly consumed by someone else. You discover a disabled, heavy, bellicose old man and a scene in which his weight serves as a comic impediment flashes into your mind. A mysterious, shy, little person shows up and foreshadowing smacks you in the face with a plotline of homosexual farce.
Pleased as I was by such an observation about the predictability of the film, I rushed to my computer to compose this review but, after composing the above paragraphs, I quickly hit a roadblock. Was I to compare the style to Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office, or some other similarly structured show or film?
Suddenly I realized that this strain of absurd, causal comedy has become the new commedia dell’arte. Largely improvisational, recycling the stock cast of an everyman nucleus surrounded by idiosyncratic grotesques, and grounded in a simple plot of the everyman reconciling the irrationality surrounding him, tangential and irrelevant comedic asides: the similarities are remarkable.
However, the mere note of such a phenomenon is worth very little. What does such a presence suggest about the social climate for which such films and shows are produced? Simply, the resurrection of commedia demonstrates the stress of an ever-waxing caprice and neophilism of society. Commedia dell’arte flourished due to its elastic capability to adapt to the local issues and jokes as the troubadour players traveled from town to town. Furthermore, such a schema provided for maximal freshness with minimal new work.
Similarly, the commedia formula allows for modern films and shows to play ever more contemporarily, accommodating to the youTube hyper-frenzied culture in which issues and events have minute half-lives. Riding on the improvisational shoulders of its casts, the form also discourages the feeling of re-trod territory, no matter how many times the architecture is repeated with altered particulars.
If at this point you, reader, move to note that Seinfeld,Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, etc., are all television programs while Death at a Funeral is not, then you have preempted my criticism of the film. As movies are not episodic, there is no need for the artifice of the commedia, employed to excellent effect by the television shows to which it is compared.
Not only is such a form in excess of necessity, the nature of commedia does not allow for a film to even fully actualize the form. As the production of movies takes several months, invariably, there is a definite limit to how responsive the film can be to current events and trends (see: anything the Wayans have done in the last decade). Thus, Death at a Funeral would be undercut by the very form it attempts, had it actually taken any considerations of “now-ness” to heart. Instead, the film plays like a relic (more ‘World’s Best Dad’ mug than Holy Grail)
Why is this film then, forced into the commedia style? It gets easy laughs. Although crippled and poorly employed, dell’arte shambles through Oz’s piece, dredging chuckles from the “zany” antics of protagonist Daniel’s (Matthew MacFadyen) dysfunctional family as he tries to referee his father’s funeral. The whole ordeal feels so plotted and rehearsed that it stands in such contrast to the ideal of its commedia form that it becomes even more mired by its pretense. Yes, I had a fine time watching it, and I laughed, but I have the same response to Family Guy and I will swear to the day I die that Family Guy is to comedy what a flexible hooker is to the Kama Sutra.
Now, I don’t mean to assert that this movie isn’t cute or even better than most of the current alternatives. It merely suffers because it apes a style inappropriate to its medium. Truthfully, it somewhat redeems itself by allowing the viewers an ending which removes the arms-length boundary that similar television pieces leave erect.
Oz’s warmth saves Death at a Funeral from being written off as a simple and failed exercise in Commedia. Whereas Seinfeld and friends will always be just players, Oz’s cast becomes somewhat closer to the audience by the final credits. Thus, I must conclude that for all its faults, the film is still above average.