Thursday, August 16, 2007
"Death at a Funeral," when laughter hurts
Summary: When we start listing the hardships of moviegoing, we generally wind up referring to such distractions as sticky theater floors, compulsive text messaging, and, of course, incessant talking. These are but a few of the things that can spoil an evening at the movies. Here, I call attention to one the most overlooked of the many irritations that result from going amongst the multitudes: the piercing laugh.
Not only did I see Frank Oz's "Death at a Funeral" in a theater at which the air conditioning was broken -- and on day when temperatures flirted with 100 degrees -- but I also sat within 10 feet of a woman whose laugh could penetrate the walls of a bunker. Her's was a high pitched, sharp spear of a laugh, and it made me wish that Oz's attempt at British comedy was less funny, although it's a good deal less uproarious than this woman's laughter might suggest.
Oz whips up a small story about a funeral that turns into a fiasco. When a family gathers to bury the patriarch of the clan, all manner of terrible misfortunes result -- from people mistakenly taking hallucinatory drugs to a gross-out moment involving human excrement.
You know a movie is flying under the radar when the most recognizable member of its cast is Peter Dinklage, the fine actor who became familiar to American audiences in "The Station Agent." Here, Dinklage portrays a mysterious stranger who shows up at the funeral in possession of secrets that potentially could throw the proceedings into further disarray.
The rest of this very British cast -- all game for Oz's mostly middling attempts at farce -- includes Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes as a grieving couple. Macfayden's character's dad occupies the coffin that becomes the centerpiece of one of the movie's best, though most predictable, jokes.
Another son (Rupert Graves) arrives from the U.S. He's a successful novelist. Alan Tudyk portrays a guest whose consumption of a hallucinogenic drug becomes a running joke. Tudyk's Simon is attending the funeral with his fiancee (Daisy Donovan). There's also a decrepit uncle (Peter Vaughan) who spews profanity from his wheelchair and who needs assistance from his nephew (Andy Nyman) in placing his bottom squarely on a toilet seat. That's a sampling of the personnel -- and the level of humor.
A movie such as "Death at a Funeral" requires only that a couple of major bits work. If they do, it's easier to overlook a noticeable lack of laughter in the setup, not to mention times when momentum flags. Several big moments can create the illusion of a much greater comic success. That pretty much happens here.
Oz hasn't created a seamless movie, but "Death at a Funeral" proves sufficiently funny, providing, of course, that you can find a theater where the air conditioning works and where you have the good fortune not to be seated near someone whose laugh adds a little pain to every joke.