Director Neil LaBute's new comedy Death at a Funeral, which stars a posse of comics headed by Chris Rock, is the movie version of karaoke. It sings the same tune as the 2007 British underground hit, but it's a little, and at times a lot, off-key.
Anyone who saw the original Frank Oz comedy of manners, with its Pandora's box of problems sharing coffin space with the deceased patriarch of a dysfunctional English family, should hold on to whatever fond memories they might have. For the rest, this new Death has its moments, but on the whole the production is, as American Idol's Randy Jackson might say, very pitchy and a couple of beats behind.
The problems start with Rock, who also serves as a producer on the film, which I guess gave him dibs on whatever role he wanted; he took the straight guy. Why? As Aaron, he's the serious older brother to whom all the funeral planning falls, including a eulogy that promises to be deadly (the stack of note cards and the stilted speech he keeps rehearsing is the clue). But Rock wears boring like an ill-fitting suit.
Other than asking one of the funniest comics around to play the nebbishy central character, the film hews so closely to the original that it can feel like an echo chamber with words, scenes, plot twists, even the graphic style of the opening credits borrowed. The script, for which original writer Dean Craig again gets credit, replaces British slang with American but keeps the same cast of characters, and in the case of Peter Dinklage, the uninvited guest who stirs the pot and thickens the plot, the same actor as well.
For the uninitiated, Death is very much an ensemble farce swirling around the death of the father — in this case an affluent African-American family long settled in an upscale Southern California neighborhood. Although Aaron and his wife have been living at home with the parents, Ryan (Martin Lawrence) is the favorite son who left years ago for New York, where he's a successful novelist and the source of much unresolved sibling rivalry. The assorted extended family is a multicultural cast consisting of doctors, investment brokers and other professional types, each with a set of issues they're working through.
Those intersecting issues get passed around like a hot potato, which makes for a fast-moving film, with broad slapstick carrying the comedy, including the conservative boyfriend who is on a bad acid trip. The stick that gets slapped around the most is Dinklage, as someone small enough to be stuffed into tight spots when the spot he thrusts the family into turns out to be tight indeed.
LaBute has done better mining the fun out of some of the setups than others, with James Marsden engaging as the accidentally drugged boyfriend who's now gone commando and Tracy Morgan a good fit as the fat friend saddled with wheelchair-bound old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and all the bodily issues and anger that accompany his advancing age.
In fact most of the ancillary bits swirling around the brothers hold up to the translation pretty well. But when the center is weak, the cake falls, and that's what happens here.
Rock and Lawrence just never gel as dueling brothers. In the film, Aaron is conflicted about his future, but Rock is even more conflicted about his comedy. He swings between the searing situational outrage, which grounds the very best of his observational stand-up, and the strait-laced, tradition-bound son and henpecked husband he is supposed to be. Meanwhile, Lawrence acts more like a party guest floating through than a member of the family, a loose end the filmmaker can't quite tie up.
It's almost as if LaBute, whose work usually comes with a serious mean streak whether drama (In the Company of Men) or comedy (Nurse Betty), wasn't quite sure how to play nice. Though he knows how to put on a funeral so that it's a polished and proficient affair, he never completely embraces "Death" and makes it his own.