Growing up in Minnesota, I came to love theater at a young age whether it was being cast as part of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz since I towered over all the boys or trying to secure as many musical solos as possible in my junior high production of Little Miss Christie. Needless to say, before I became solely obsessed with writing, I loved the smell of greasepaint in the morning (and the evening).
Of course, school theatricals aside, we lived in one of the most exciting cities for the arts being located near several theatres such as the legendary Guthrie Theatre but I remember having a particular fondness for the British farces and comedies that were frequently staged at our Old Log Theater.
There in that picturesque rustic setting could audiences see the best of British sex comedies of mistaken identity and misunderstandings and while to some it’s an acquired taste, I’m consistently taken in by the outrageous setups and casts of dozens of actors who, like members of a great jazz band, all get their chance to experiment, riff and shine under their spotlight like Golden Gods as Billy Crudup in Almost Famous would say.
In film, it’s a rare and sometimes unsuccessful proposition that doesn’t always equal big bang for the box office buck but when it’s done right in films such as A Fish Called Wanda or Noises Off, there’s nothing greater and such is the case with American director Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral.
Working from a script by Dean Craig and filmed in a breakneck seven weeks, Bowfinger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and In and Out director Frank Oz introduces us to Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), a kind, upstanding and good man married to Jane (Keeley Hawes) who still lives at home with his mother (Jane Asher).
After his father dies, the responsibility to plan the funeral falls to Daniel and everything appears to be in order until the arrival of the casket and the guests lead to incredibly bizarre, uncomfortable and hilarious complications that I won’t begin to explain for fear of spoiling here in a traditional plot summary.
Suffice it to say, secrets are revealed in the form of a mysterious American dwarf (The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage) who shows up out of the blue in the mood for soul-baring (or possibly blackmail) but he’s only one tenth of the story.
Since funerals are get-together functions after all, relatives and friends arrive with baggage and agendas all their own. One man tries to win back Daniel’s engaged cousin with whom he shared a one night stand and hallucinogenic pills circulate in the form of what is perceived to be Valium causing a few guests to sidle up to mourners and some to avoid others like the plague, all except Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan) who really can't stand anybody.
With so much plot and characters all crammed into a brisk running time of less than two hours, it's altogether amazing that nothing gets lost in the shuffle.
And instead of feeling slighted, with the situations and characters growing wilder by the minute, we’re never asked to buy into even more outrageous humor than what seems—although highly unbelievable—fitting to the story that the ensemble, Craig, and Oz are trying to tell.
Scene-stealers abound and come mostly in the form of the film’s most valuable player Andy Nyman as Daniel’s loyal if slightly dim best friend Howard and there’s a highly entertaining outtake reel on the DVD that's been transferred to MGM's new Blu-ray release, documenting just how hard the actors all had to work to keep from laughing.
While the highs and lows of the high-definition volume give our remote control a workout in a muddled mix that goes from booming sound effects to whispered dialogue we strain to hear, with the right audio sound field, a little patience and luckily enough laughter to cover up for some of the sudden jolts in pitch level, it's easy to overlook the slapdash sound.
The surprisingly sidesplitting sleeper with the solemn title that's a tonal (and total) misnomer, Death at a Funeral is easily one of the funniest films of the past few years let alone 2007, ultimately reminding us that truly funny cinematic comedy is a dying art.
Wholly original and freewheelingly inventive as the type of movie you'll not only want to watch more than once but share with friends, Death at a Funeral may have been a slow-starter on American soil but the British import grew into a word-of-mouth hit so strong that it spawned an American remake (I have yet to see) with Dinklage in tow, reprising his original role.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.