Review of “Death at a Funeral”

Sticking a pin into overstuffed pomposity is something of a staple of British comedy: Whether it's the gentle anti-authoritarian tweaking of the old Ealing comedies, Mr. Bean making a slapstick disaster out of meeting the Queen, or the delicious agony of John Cleese trying to maintain his dignity when he's discovered naked in A Fish Called Wanda, the disruption of stiff-upper-lip status quo is the sort of thing the Brits do best.

So you'd be forgiven for thinking that Death at a Funeral — a British farce that disrupts that most solemn of occasions — would be rife with comic possibilities. Burials are often hotbeds of family resentments and unfulfilled emotions staged by people trying to keep a brave face for the world. The ceremonies surrounding death have provided fodder for comedy classics as disparate as The Funeral (from Tampopo director Juzo Itami) and The Loved One (a movie where cameos from Tab Hunter and Liberace were of a piece with the general air of lunacy).

Alas, this new film from director Frank Oz is a stiff. Despite a final half hour that's full of laughs, Death takes so long getting its farce gears moving that the audience becomes comatose with anticipation of mirth that is too late in coming.

The principal — and least interesting — storyline concerns Daniel (Matthew Macfayden), whose wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) hopes that, with the death of Daniel's father, the two of them will be able to move out of his parents' house and into a flat of their own. Those plans are complicated by the arrival of Daniel's brother Robert (Rupert Graves, whose face shows all 20 of the years that have passed since he starred in Maurice), a world-renowned novelist who's not as well-off as he appears.

Further complicating matters is Peter (Peter Dinklage), a surprise guest at the funeral. Peter informs Daniel that he and the deceased were gay lovers, and that if Daniel doesn't fork over 15,000 pounds, Peter will tell all to everyone at the funeral. After an aborted payoff attempt, Daniel and Robert attempt to subdue Peter, first by physical force and then by slipping him what they think are Valiums. What's actually in the Valium bottle, however, are pills that are a combination of LSD, ketamine, and various other hallucinogens.

It's the drug mix-up that, surprisingly, provides Death at a Funeral with its funniest moments, thanks to Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Knocked Up) as a high-strung man who accidentally ingests them. Already nervous about having to deal with his girlfriend's stentorian father at the funeral, Tudyk's Simon winds up making nonsense conversation and staring into bushes before eventually taking off all of his clothes and climbing onto the roof.

Tudyk's nude scenes remind us once again that the penis has been exiled from mainstream American cinema. (Not counting The Simpsons Movie, of course.) What makes his nudity jarring, however, is the ridiculously elaborate camera angles and editing that have to take place to prevent his meat-and-veg from appearing on the screen. It's an elaborately choreographed joke when a character's nudity is strategically hidden from the camera by a series of objects in the Austin Powers movies, but when Tudyk's junk remains invisible in an organic context, it makes the audience focus on his genitals much more than they would if the director weren't so afraid of them. Had the film been made in the tradition of classic Brit comedies — and really, why is a Hollywood filmmaker like Frank Oz directing such an exceedingly British film? — we would have all gotten a quick flash and been done with it.

And while we’re on the subject of Frank Oz: Why is he so frequently drawn to films with gay subject matter, only to handle it so amateurishly? He’s collaborated twice with gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick, but neither film reaches the heights of such Oz classics as What About Bob?, Bowfinger, or even The Muppets Take Manhattan. Rudnick’s In & Out isn’t aging very well, what with its ultra-tame approach to gay identity issues; if the film endures, it will be for Joan Cusack’s scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated performance as Kevin Kline’s jilted bride. The other Oz-Rudnick collaboration, the remake of The Stepford Wives, was an out-and-out disaster, succeeding neither as camp homage nor as subversive satire.

The only thing making Death at a Funeral’s gay subplot remotely interesting is Dinklage, one of the most compelling performers working in film today. Unlike the little-person actors of an earlier age — Billy Barty, say — Dinklage dares you not to take him seriously for even an instant. Even when his size is used as an element of the physical comedy here — his body gets tossed about in an attempt to hide it from the funeral guests — one never has the sense that the movie is making sport of his height, and that has more to do with Dinklage’s power to create a character (almost literally out of nothing, in this case) than anything else.

The characters in Death don’t treat Dinklage’s revelations any differently than if they had come from a tall woman — it’s the adultery and blackmail, not the homosexuality and, uh, height difference that matter. But going out on a limb a bit and tweaking expectations (in a rude but still funny way) might have upped the comedy quotient a bit.

The screenplay often goes in circles when it could be advancing things. For instance, we see the deceased’s wife (Jane Asher) being rudely snippy to her daughter-in-law early on (Offered a cup of tea, she responds, “There’s one thing a cup of tea won’t do, and that’s bring back the dead.”), but nothing ever comes of it. There’s also a big to-do about the fact that Daniel, and not famous writer Robert, is going to deliver the eulogy, obviously setting us up for a moment where Daniel finds his voice and shows that he, too, can write. But once we get there, the eulogy winds up being not particularly interesting, and thus the whole point is lost.

If anyone behind the scenes of Death at a Funeral deserves praise without reservation, it’s the casting department, who has assembled a troupe of performers far better than Dean Craig’s clunky script deserves. Besides Macfayden (whose plainness here will make him unrecognizable to those who swooned over his Mr. Darcy in the most recent big-screen Pride & Prejudice adaptation), Dinklage and Tudyk, Funeral spotlights the always-oddball Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), Kris Marshall (as a hilariously shifty student pharmacist) and, most especially, Andy Nyman (Severance), whose frequent outbursts of exasperation are comic gems.

So for those of you keeping score at home, that’s a cast heavy of comedic talent and a director with a reasonably decent comedy track record delivering a movie that’s not very funny until the very end. If this were an actual funeral, audiences would be forgiven for wanting to go out and mill about the foyer until the big finish.

Duralde is the author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men.