In ‘Death at a Funeral’, Death Has Never Been So Lifeless

It only took Hollywood three years to remake the amusing-but-forgettable 2007 British comedy Death at a Funeral. Chris Rock, who stars in and produced the 2010 American version, must have caught the film on DVD (not too many Americans made it to the theater), snatched up the rights, and started calling a few famous friends to help him act it out. Rock’s need for speed even kept him from hiring a new writer – he simply reused Dean Craig’s original script about a dysfunctional family trying to get through a relative’s funeral.

If you keep in mind this was a British script written for British actors with a very dry British sense of humor, two results seem unavoidable: (1) Neil LaBute’s blasé remake is as close to a carbon copy as one can get without following in Gus Van Sant’s footsteps (a word-for-word, shot-for-shot “reimagining” a la 1997’s Pyscho), and (2) The final product is less than fully functioning. In fact, it’s pretty terrible.

This last comment may actually turn some heads. The only real difference between the British and American versions is the cast, and LaBute’s picture has a cast at least comparable to its predecessor. They may not be future Oscar winners (well, maybe a few), but this is the sort of situational comedy Rock and Martin Lawrence usually thrive in – so what went wrong? Perhaps we should look at the actors individually to help solve this conundrum.

Danny Glover – Playing a cranky, foul-mouthed uncle in a supporting role is a dream gig for the man who claims to be getting too old for this stuff. Yes, he delivers his iconic catch phrase in one of the film’s few perfectly timed comedic moments, but Glover is more than just another name for the poster. His version of the wheelchair-bound Uncle Russell surpasses Peter Vaughn’s due to his sheer hostility. There’s no sign of a cute little curmudgeon here. Instead, a senile version of Murtaugh steals every scene.

Luke Wilson – The exact opposite can be said for Owen’s brother. He does little with a thankless role that could have been seen as “the token white guy” if not for James Marsden’s appearance. Wilson certainly doesn’t add anything to the picture, but he’s not the reason it didn’t work.

Peter Dinklage – Though he’s the sole returning cast member from the 2007 version, Dinklage feels right at home. If you don’t know the details of his character, I won’t spoil them here. Frank is a welcome if slightly under-utilized twist to a film with limited guffaws, and this version could never be hurt by Dinklage reprising a role he aced the last time around.

Tracy Morgan – Tracy Morgan should never be asked to act outside his comfort zone and he comes dangerously close to doing just that multiple times in Death at a Funeral. His inability not to be himself is made more apparent by the few scenes where he cuts loose. His interactions with Glover are entertaining, but not as much as if LaBute had let the foul-mouthed comedian talk a little smack back to the old man. It’s hard to blame Morgan for his forced confinement, so let’s chalk it up to moving on the film too quickly.

Zoe Saldana – She sure looks good (which is about half of what we want from her character), but Saldana’s angry demeanor cuts through a lot of the comedy surrounding her. Daisy Donovan was much warmer in the role three years prior, and we’re never given any evidence as to why Elaine would be so much more uptight in the exact same situation.

James Marsden – If anyone was handed a better character than Glover, it was certainly Marsden. As Elaine’s terrified fiancé who’s accidentally given acid to calm down, Marsden obviously has quite a few choices in how to best portray Oscar’s manic actions. While the actor best known for playing Cyclops in the X-Men franchise may not be an obvious choice for slapstick comedy, Marsden knocks this one out of the park. Topping Alan Tudyk’s performance from the original had to be a challenging idea going in, but Marsden should be pleased that he at least equaled the comedic actor’s all out offering with an identical amount of enthusiasm.

Martin Lawrence – Here is where the train starts to come off the tracks. Lawrence is obviously capable of being a very funny comedian, but he’s at his best with the gloves off. In films like Bad Boys, Nothing to Lose, and even Blue Streak (which costarred Luke Wilson), Lawrence was running his mouth more than reciting lines. One might think he could do the same thing here considering the remake’s R-rating. He does not. As Ryan, the family’s beloved famous writer and brother to Rock, Lawrence is given maybe one or two scenes to joke around. The rest is filler designed to make the audience understand why Rock, as his less successful older brother, dislikes him. Though he’s almost as handcuffed as Morgan, Lawrence’s few jokes fall flat and they were definitely by his design.

Chris Rock – Why do they let Chris Rock act anymore? He’s been appearing in movies for more than two decades and he just hasn’t gotten any better. Now, I’m not saying it’s time to exclude him from the silver screen entirely. I simply think he’s run out of chances to become a full-fledged actor instead of a comedian appearing in films. Like Lawrence, if he’s just cracking his own jokes he’s doing fine. Unfortunately, he seems to insist on taking roles requiring him to play sincere, caring individuals. In Death at a Funeral, Rock is asked to portray these traits almost exclusively. Throw in a touch of anger, lackadaisical effort, and a few poorly executed jokes and you get a good picture of what he brings to the table. Most of the blame for this mess falls on his shrugging shoulders.

If anyone wants to hear him try to justify his actions, Rock recorded a commentary track on the DVD with director Neil LaBute. He also appears in the disc’s three making-of documentaries, none of which are worth watching. “Death for Real” poses mortality questions to members of the cast. “Family Album” allows each actor to discuss his or her character even further by rehashing what we’ve already seen in the movie.

Finally, half of the 20-minute featurette “Last Rites, Dark Secrets” is movie clips while the other half consists of interviews with the cast. There’s just nothing exciting here. Even the usually hilarious gag reel is filled with angry reactions from the cast. One would think such a quick turnaround from original to remake would be because someone loved the story. If so, they didn’t take the time to include their affection in the final product.

RATING 3 / 10