In Death at a Funeral, a memorial service for a family patriarch goes terribly awry, beginning with the delivery of the wrong stiff and ending with the ravings of a naked guy on a roof. This may sound awfully familiar, especially to anyone who saw Death at a Funeral three years ago. But that was then, when the comedy was a tumbling (and strained) British farce set in a proper English country house and populated by proper British people coming undone. This is now, when the comedy has been remade, at the urging of stellar comedian Chris Rock, into a loosey-goosey American romp. With judicious tweaks and updates incorporated into his original script by British screenwriter Dean Craig, the wrong stiff is now delivered to grieving African-American kin in Pasadena, Calif. — blood relatives who just happen to be played by some of the biggest names in pop comedy, including Rock (also one of the movie’s producers), Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan.
The retooling is almost enough to make me believe in reincarnation. Because this version of Death at a Funeral comes to life with an unforced, bopping raunch and warmth that eluded the previous tea party. The same crazy juju goes down, with explosions of sibling rivalry between grieving sons (Lawrence is a preening, self-involved famous author, Rock is his undervalued brother), grotesque toilet antics involving a very crotchety old man (Danny Glover, never funnier), and displays of hilariously inappropriate behavior by a guest inadvertently enjoying a hallucinogenic afternoon (James Marsden, stealing the show with every sweet, princely smile and barking mad gesture he makes). And now, as then, the whole event is turned upside down by the appearance of a stranger who knew the departed in a very special way. Happily, Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the fly in the dearly beloveds’ ointment, giving his inimitable performance an ever-so-slightly insane, aggressive edge suited to this particular family’s decibel level. The supporting cast, a gallery of attention-getters, includes Tracy Morgan as a hypochondriacal family friend, Zoë Saldana as a cousin, Luke Wilson as the cousin’s ex-boyfriend, and the heavenly Loretta Devine as the grieving widow.
The resurrected Death at a Funeral is directed by Neil LaBute. And — the joke’s on us! — the dark-as-pitch playwright and filmmaker (In the Company of Men) turns out to have a playful hand when it comes to choreographing Three Stooges’-style nyuk-nyuks. As British as the original was (actors such as Matthew MacFadyen, Rupert Graves, and Alan Tudyk disappeared into character in a pip-pip display of national theatrical technique), this one could only come from our side of the pond. Personality driven, the movie takes proud advantage of a happy, casually crude, Crock-Pot American-ness. Reveling in mess and homegrown multiracial mayhem, Death at a Funeral finds a new lease on life. B+