Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dead Laughs

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

The movie farce has always been something of a shaggy dog compared to the fine beast typically displayed on stage. Certainly, dialogue, plot and action can resonate as equally on both stage and screen, but movie farce has to be also driven by some of the prerequisite cinematic techniques like shot selection, editing, and camera movement. Movie farces helmed by the vaunted likes of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or even Mel Brooks usually roll out via such finely interlocking machinery, rapidly cranking up the ante towards comic nirvana.

Death at a Funeral is a sweat drenched attempt at carving out a sparkling (and supposedly outrageous) movie farce, but it ultimately strains at the seams, whisking along ever so tepidly, providing some legitimate laughs, but failing to pull it all together, or even reach occasional comic heights . Worse, upon final view, it even seems a step down from the movie’s it’s remaking, the 2006 film of the same name.

Transposing the setting from England to Southern California, and changing the cast from white Brits to middle class African-Americans, the new version sticks close to the original (they both share the same screenwriter in Dean Craig). As family and friends gather for a funeral viewing, secrets from the past, romantic tensions, misplaced bodies, and a vial of hallucinogens help tilt the day’s mounting encounters steadily off course.

The original (well okay, four-year-old) movie was directed by Frank Oz, a decent comic hand, responsible for the likes of Little Shop of Horrors (’86), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (’88), What About Bob? (’91), and Bowfinger (’99). Inexplicably the new, Americanized version has been but in the hands of Neil LaBute, the bad boy misanthrope behind both button-pushing plays (In the Country of Men, The Mercy Seat, Fat Pig) and films (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, The Shape of Things). LaBute may be a smart guy, but he has seemingly stepped into a role, that of comic filmmaker, that ill suits him. The movie veers towards the inept, with unconvincing bouts of slapstick, misfired gags, and no discernable snap or punch in the majority of the humorous exchanges. It’s as if LaBute, never a particularly great visual filmmaker, has eschewed even his usual unsettling edginess in a misguided attempt to prove he has a heretofore unseen directorial versatility. Well, it just ain’t so.

Even most of the potentially decent cast spend most of their time misfiring. Chris Rock, as the more traditional of two brothers largely plays it straight, and that tact remains disappointing, as one expects more slyness and rapier reactions from him, while Martin Lawrence, as the cock-of-the-walk sibling, stays stuck in his typically one note, you’ve-seen-it-before, hyperventilating shtick. The usually reliable Luke Wilson doesn’t even register in his low radar role, and such stalwarts as Loretta Devine, Regina Hall, Danny Glover, and Keith David and Zoe Saldana don’t come up with much beyond the fairly predictable. Strangest of all is the case Peter Dinklage, reprising his role in the first film, albeit with a different name, as an unwelcome funeral guest, who happens to be a dwarf and a homosexual lover of the deceased—yet executing a turn that seems less energetic and much less inspired then the first time around. (Only Tracy Morgan and James Marsden remain unscathed, both contributing some true belly laughs, with the latter registering some particularly inspired looniness.)

When LaBute is effective he usually allows a subtle anarchic spirit to creep into his film work, but the all important destructive spirit of comedy is not on display here. There is no piquant shredding of assumptions or of social or moral consents, just some rat-a-tat knockdowns, and a mere spritz. LaBute, despite his high toned background doesn’t get anarchic or ironic enough, he his most persistent directorial choice seems to be to just wave the action along like a complacent traffic cop, as if the material was unique or special enough to bring it on home. Of course, that isn’t the case, and the laughs here are as stiff as the corpses.


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