Death at a Funeral (2007): Frank Oz Nightmarish Comedy, Starring Rupert Graves and Peter Dinklage

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A nightmarish funeral ceremony, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, provides many lightly amusing moments in Death at a Funeral, a serviceable British comedy that offers many hijinks but not enough genuine laughs.

Director Frank Oz keeps the proceedings moving along swiftly, but a good cast can only do so much with a script filled with bits involving uptight Britons, unexpected nudity, bathroom humor, and ill-timed consumptions of hallucinogens.

Responsible son Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) has gathered his family together for the funeral of his father. No matter his loyalty to his clan, many of the arriving mourners are disappointed that he will be delivering the eulogy instead of favorite son Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist who left England for New York and never looked back. As Daniel frets over the wording of his eulogy, he meets Peter (Peter Dinklage), a mysterious outsider who needs to speak to him urgently about a matter concerning his father.

Meanwhile, cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) is bringing her fianc Simon (Alan Tudyk) to the funeral. Knowing that her father (Peter Egan) disapproves of Simon, she worries about breaking the news that theyre engaged. Not helping matters, Simon accidentally takes some LSD on the way to the service, launching into hallucinogenic outbursts that threaten to derail the funeral, not to mention his upcoming nuptials.

Written by Dean Craig, who also penned the dreary restaurant comedy Caffeine earlier this year, Death at a Funeral shares a similar comedic construction wherein many different plots operate simultaneously within the same location. Though helped by a stronger group of actors, Death at a Funeral again demonstrates that while Craig enjoys flitting between different mini-narratives, he cant give his characters much definition, relying instead on gimmicks for laughs.

The scripts overall construction seems especially creaky. Clearly conceived to be a farce, Death at a Funeral sets up early on that Daniels hopes for a noble farewell to his father will be dashed by several unpredictable factors. But rather than having these obstacles spring from character issues, many of them are set into motion by Simons accidental ingestion of a designer drug, prompting actor Alan Tudyk to behave ludicrously for the benefit of laughs and plot complications. More difficulties arise when Peter tells Daniel some surprising news about his family, but Peters revelation is easy to guess.

Frank Oz has wrung solid laughs from clever comedic concepts such as Bowfinger and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Unfortunately, the material here is not up to those levels, and his somewhat pedestrian, blandly professional style fails to add much zing. The result is a polished but rather drab sheen better suited to the small screen.

Craigs screenplay does have an emotional undercurrent but it takes a decidedly supporting position to the films gags. Though a dutiful son and a good husband, Daniel remains in the shadow of Robert, the family’s golden child who has found notoriety and respect as an author. Daniel is by far the more considerate of the two sons, but because Robert has success while Daniel has struggled for years writing the same book, he is always made to feel inferior. Even at the funeral of his father, which Daniel paid for and planned by himself, he must endure family comments about how wonderful it is to see Robert.

Daniels bitter envy toward his sainted brother could make for a great human center to the movies pratfalls, but the filmmakers mostly use it as an excuse for bickering between the two once they have to deal with Peters shocking news.

As the wild card amidst the films prim-and-proper characters, American actor Alan Tudyk does quite well with his British accent, but his increasingly unhinged performance grows tedious. This may in part be due to the convoluted circumstances in which his character Simon, a high-strung guy who just wants the blessing of his fiances father, falls under the influence of LSD and then starts acting erratically. While a comedy like Death at a Funeral is not expected to be realistic, Simons behavior, including stripping and reverting to childlike babbling, seems more of an amalgam of other actors exaggerated under-the-influence performances than inspired creation.

Macfadyen, who was very good as the love interest in the recent Pride and Prejudice, does solid work as the decent and soft-spoken Daniel, but his character is rather predictable. So too is Graves’ unexciting role that requires him to go from callous to caring.

Credits

Running time: 91 minutes

Director: Frank Oz
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Parabolic Pictures, Stable Way Entertainment, VIP Medienfonds 1+2, Target Media
US distribution: MGM Pictures
Producers: Diana Phillips, Share Stallings, Laurence Malkin, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: William Horberg, Bruce Toll, Andreas Grosch, Philip Elway
Screenplay: Dean Craig
Cinematography: Oliver Curtis
Editor: Beverley Mills
Production design: Michael Howells
Music: Murray Gold

Cast

Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen)
Robert (Rupert Graves)
Martha (Daisy Donovan)
Simon (Alan Tudyk)
Peter (Peter Dinklage)
Jane (Keeley Hawes)
Howard (Andy Nyman)
Justin (Ewen Bremner)
Sandra (Jane Asher)
Victor (Peter Egan)