Daniel (Matthew McFadyen, TV’s “MI:5”, “Pride & Prejudice”) and his wife, Jane (Keely Hawes, TV’s “MI:5”) are living at home with his father and mother when his father dies. They await the arrival of the rest of the family for the funeral. Soon, the house is filled and they have to deal with all of the craziness in everyone’s life. Daniel’s brother, John (Rupert Graves), a published writer, flies in from New York, first class, and claims he doesn’t have any money to help out with the funeral costs. Martha (Daisy Donovan), Daniel’s cousin, and her fiancée, Simon (Alan Tudyk) stop by to pick up her brother, Troy (Kris Marshall, “Love Actually”). Simon is a wreck, because Martha’s father has never liked him, so Martha decides to give him a Valium she finds in Troy’s apartment. The only problem is that Troy is a minor drug dealer and the Valium is in fact a hallucinogen. Then, Peter (Peter Dinklage, “The Station Agent”) shows up for the service. Daniel doesn’t recognize him and is surprised when he asks if they can speak alone. Peter reveals some information to the son of the deceased, which causes everything to spiral out of control.
Directed by Frank Oz, an American director and former Muppeteer, “Death at a Funeral” has all the markings on a dark British comedy. It is strange that an American film director would make such a film, but Oz seems to be a good choice; “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has many similar elements. Despite the broad moments in his comedies, they do share a certain sensibility with the early work or Peter Sellers or Alec Guiness. In “Death”, Oz dials down the comedy significantly, making it darker, more subtle, more tongue in cheek, more British.
The mood of the film is set early on. The undertakers arrive with Daniel’s father and set the coffin in the viewing room. They open the casket and Daniel looks inside. “Who’s that? That’s not my father.” They have brought the wrong body. They take the casket away and return later with the right body.
The real comedic standout in the film is Alan Tudyk who plays Simon, Martha’s nervous fiancée. Just as they arrive at the country estate, the drugs he has unwittingly ingested begin to take hold and he starts to stare at leaves and flowers. Martha doesn’t really know what to make of her boyfriend. During the ceremony, he causes a delay and Martha’s father, Victor, dislikes him even more. Through the course of the film, Simon becomes more distraught and more unhinged as the full effects of the drug take place.
Simon is the broadest character, but even this is minor when compared to some comedic roles in American films. The major laughs of this character come from his actions in the environment of this country house funeral. Everyone else is trying to remain very proper and respectful as Simon climbs naked on roofs.
Matthew McFadyen and Keely Hawes are both good, but they are basically the straight men for the rest of the cast. Daniel and Jane are trying to maintain an air of respectability, and Daniel’s known as the ‘respectable’ (boring) son. When Peter makes himself known to Daniel, Daniel begins to act a bit wacky, but the role is still relatively low key.
As the story progresses and the characters begin to spiral out of control, the action becomes even more funny because people are acting completely at odds to the setting. When you see a large country house in the English countryside, you think everyone will be acting very proper. When they don’t, it creates funny situations and a lot of laugher. This is really the key with most great British comedies. They make fun of themselves, planting tongue firmly in cheek and casting their eye on themselves.
“Death at a Funeral” is not a great film. It can’t seem to distance itself from scatological humor; an elderly wheelchair bound Uncle (Peter Vaughn) needs help to get to the bathroom and a family friend Howard (Andy Nyman) seems designated to help him. The situation leads to Howard getting feces on his hand and face. Oz seems to think this is funny, but it is just gross and seems completely at odds with the rest of the film.
“Death at a Funeral” is not a laugh a minute, but is a very humorous and enjoyable diversion. It is a film perfectly suited for DVD rental.