Still, it’s a grim moviegoing experience to sit through a film with a farce’s gimcrack structure and punchy rhythms that misfires on its jokes so consistently. That, unfortunately, is what happens in Death at a Funeral, a British import that stinks like Stilton gone bad. The movie opens shortly before a funeral wake for an elderly Englishman, held at the deceased’s country house and presided over by his struggling-writer son Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen). When the hearse delivers the coffin, Daniel looks inside and asks, “Who’s this?” (Funeral home guy: “Shit, we’ve taken the wrong one!”) Once the correct corpse is in place, the guests start to arrive with their self-absorbed and supposedly comic neuroses: Daniel’s famous-novelist brother Robert (Rupert Graves), tightly wound cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan), senile uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), and hypochondriac best friend Howard (Andy Nyman). The latter is particularly irritating, but his germ phobia is drowned out when Martha’s fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk, a Plano product blending in seamlessly with this mostly British cast) tries to calm his nerves by taking a pill from a bottle labeled “Valium,” only to discover that it’s actually — wait for it — LSD!
American director and sometime Muppet and Yoda portrayer Frank Oz has made some engaging farces in the past, particularly In & Out and Bowfinger, though some will argue with me on that last one. Here, though, he’s fighting a losing battle against his material, which is meticulously structured and yet so conventional that you can see gags coming from a mile away. We see a character putting the acid in the Valium bottle 10 minutes into the film, so we know one of the funeral’s unsuspecting guests will make the mistake, yet it takes at least 20 minutes more of screen time before the pill finds its way into Simon’s system. Then he spends the rest of the movie stoned, which seems emblematic of the British fustiness of this DELETE that seems to find the presence of drugs and gay sex at a funeral much more shockingly funny than the rest of us do.
Speaking of gay sex, the movie careens even more steeply downhill when Dad’s secret American lover (Peter Dinklage) turns up with sex photos and tries to use them to extort money from Daniel and Robert. The blackmailer deserves no sympathy, but the brothers’ heartless and faintly murderous reactions to him underline an even bigger flaw in the movie: These characters aren’t likable. In fact, you want to get away from them as quickly as you can, though the actors seem unaware of how rotten their characters are. The actors’ bland, routine efforts only contribute to the aggravating vibe that Death at a Funeral gives off, as the movie appears smugly convinced that it is creating hilarity. It is quite mistaken.
Death at a Funeral
Starring Matthew Macfadyen, Rupert Graves, and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Dean Craig. Rated R.