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Non-Review Review: Death at a Funeral

I think the charm of Death at a Funeralis the fact that it feels very much like a classic comedy of errors. Sure, there are some scatological moments thrown in, but it really feels like an old-fashioned slapstick comedy of manners, based around putting its characters through a variety of hilariously awkward little subplots, playing out against the backdrop of what should be a classy and respectful family occasion. If nothing else, the movie is a charming and affectionate homage to that style of comedy I had feared might be dearly departed.

A grave matter...

The cast, listed at the start of the film in alphabetical order, is pretty phenomenal. I’m not the biggest fan of Chris Rock and I honestly dislike Martin Lawrence, but I have a soft spot for veteran actors like Keith David, Danny Glover or Ron Glass, along with younger talent like Zoe Saldana, Tracey Morgan and Luke Wilson. It’s a nice group of performers to bring together, and – to be honest – each brings something to the table. Even Martin Lawrence was actually fairly decent, and James Marsden manages to get considerable mileage out of one of the movie’s more predictable plotlines.

The movie follows a large extended family coming together to mourn the passing of a patriarch. Against this setting, old rivalries are exposed, new relationships are revealed and a lot of things go very wrong – very quickly. With its expansive cast, the movie moves pretty quickly, and that works to its advantage. Being entirely honest, not every plotline in the film really works, but the ensemble is large enough that the rotations are quick. We don’t ever focus too long on a particularly trite or cliché plotline.

Somebody got roofied...

To be honest, none of the plots in the film are especially original. The old man, of course, has secrets hidden away from his family. Somebody takes medication that isn’t really what they thought it was. Somebody else really wants to have sex, despite the awkward gathering. What marks the difference between success and failure is the skill with which these threads are executed by those involved. One particular plot thread works simply because it keeps going and going and going, pushing past our expectations and allowing itself to spiral out of control. None of the outcomes or results are especially unpredictable, but I think that’s part of the charm.

Death at a Funeral is, despite what the name might imply, a relatively well-mannered comedy. Sure, there are a handful of jokes about poop, and more than a few about male genitalia, but it’s much more restrained than most of the other major comedies released over the past few years. Indeed, the film seems to rely on the situations and characters to generate laughter, rather than crude scenarios. Well, mostly. There’s the expectation that things will out well in the end, no real damage will be done, and that we can just sit back and enjoy the ride without worrying. That’s what makes it so wonderfully charming, despite (or perhaps because of) its faults.

Toilet humour...

That said, the movie does veer just a tiny bit too close to saccharine in its final act. Life lessons are learned and freely imparted, with relatively little relation to anything that has unfolded – they arrive simply because the movie is coming to an end, and we need a nice shine moral to stick on a film like this. In a way, much like everything else, it’s the kind of thing you expect from a film like this, so it probably shouldn’t seem quite so surprising or stilted, but it does. In fact, the ending of the movie requires a rather significant suspension of disbelief, asking the audience to just accept that things have worked out the way that they have worked out. It’s just that kind of movie, the film seems to suggest – and it’s hard to disagree.

Still, there are moments of genuine comedy charm. There are wonderfully awkward encounters and horrible incidents that would scar any sane person for the rest of their lives. As I noted above, the cast are talented enough to make these set-ups and scenarios work. I genuinely enjoyed it, and the film has a sort of contagious energy that can’t help but win over viewers.

Needs more Morgan?

Death at a Funeral is the kind of film that they don’t really make anymore. I think that gives it quite a lot of currency and charm. To be honest, I really enjoyed it, despite its apparent flaws. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but only when it’s executed well. And this, despite its slavish devotion to the conventions (or perhaps because of that devotion), is nostalgia done very well.

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