Monday, April 19, 2010


Everything that can possibly go wrong at a memorial service does go wrong in “Nurse Betty” director Neil LaBute’s witty but tasteless comedy “Death at a Funeral,” (**** OUT OF ****) starring Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan and Zoe Saldana. Ostensibly a faithful rehash of director Frank Oz’s British comedy with the same title, this predominately African-American remake—just three years after the original—qualifies as a side-splitting experience from fade-in to fade-out with our protagonists contending with one surprise after another to get their dearly departed dad and his mourners through the memorial. Incidentally, Peter Dinklage reprises his role from the original as “mysterious stranger.” British scenarist Dean Craig, who penned the original “Funeral,” banks on outrageous situations as well as Chris Rock’s commentary about these incidents to yield laughs galore. Essentially, Craig has relocated the action to Southern California. The primary characters consist of an oddball variety of believable, quirky, but sympathetic folks. Indeed, the cast acts virtually as an ensemble in some scenes. Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence complement each other without trying to outdo each other. James Marsden has a field day with his character-driven shenanigans, while Tracy Morgan draws some of the biggest laughs when he tangles with Danny Glover. The important thing here--as in most good comedies--is that the cast and the director don’t deliberately behave as if they were making a comedy. Nobody tries to be funny. The humor emerges in the collision between the characters and predicaments wholly beyond their control. Watching the reactions of both Rock and Lawrence constitutes half of the fun of “Death at a Funeral.”

Tax accountant Aaron Barnes (Chris Rock of “Good Hair”) is not a happy camper as “Death at a Funeral” unfolds. Imagine Aaron’s reaction when the funeral home delivers the wrong corpse to his house! When they open the casket for our protagonist, Aaron finds himself staring down at an Asian gentleman (Jamison Yang of “Surfer, Dude”) rather than his deceased father Edward (Bob Minor of "The Gingerbread Man"). Since Edward's death, Aaron’s overwrought mother, Cynthia (Loretta Divine of “Waiting to Exhale”), has been pestering both Aaron and his 37-year old wife Michelle (Regina Hall of “Scary Movie”) about giving her a grandchild to take her mind off her late husband. Moreover, Aaron finds himself struggling to compose a eulogy for his father. Tradition dictates that the oldest son must deliver it. Nevertheless, some people, such as Aaron's uncle Duncan (Ron Glass of TV’s “Barney Miller”), think Aaron’s younger brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence of “Bad Boys”), should have drawn that assignment. As it turns out, Aaron is only nine months older than Ryan. You see, Aaron has written a book, but he has refused to let anybody read it. Meanwhile, Cynthia is so overjoyed when her celebrity son Ryan arrives that she knocks down Michelle in her haste to embrace her baby. Ryan is a bespectacled, mustached, smooth-talking womanizer. He is also a published writer so deep in debt that he doesn’t have a dime. When Aaron asks him to help out with the expensive funeral bill, Ryan refuses. Instead, Ryan sets out to seduce a sexy 18-year old girl, Martina (Regine Nehy of "Lakeview Terrace"), who sends his hormones into an uproar. The inevitable jokes about R. Kelly follow.

Meantime, Aaron's cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana of “Avatar”) is attending the memorial service with her latest boyfriend Oscar ((James Marsden of “X-Men”), and Oscar is pretty nervous about running into Elaine’s father Duncan again. Oscar doesn’t think that Duncan approves of him. Elaine and Oscar cruise over to pick up her brother Jeffrey (Columbus Short of “Armored”), and Elaine sneaks a Valium. What Elaine doesn’t know is that Jeffrey has whipped up a hallucinogenic cocktail of mescaline and acid for his friends and stashed it in a bottle with a Valium prescription. Jeffrey doesn’t discover what Elaine has done until he notices Oscar’s bizarre behavior. At one point during the memorial service, Oscar is so confident that he has seen the coffin moving that he interrupts the preacher, Reverend Davis (Keith David of “Delta Farce”), in the middle of his sermon. A melee ensues as Aaron and company try to subdue Oscar. Predictably, the casket topples onto the floor and out rolls Edward’s inert corpse! If Oscar’s misguided shenanigans were not enough to contend with, a stranger named Frank (Peter Dinklage of “Elf”) corners Aaron with incriminating photos of Edward and he cuddling up to each other like the gay lovers that they were. Frank demands $30-thousand dollars or he will show the photos to Cynthia.

Elaine’s ex-boyfriend Derek (Luke Wilson of “Home Fries”) and long-time family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan of “Cop Out”) have to make a detour at a nursing home to collect cantankerous Uncle Russell (Danny Glover of “Lethal Weapon”) and bring him with them. The wheel chair bound Uncle Russell doesn’t give Norman a moment’s peace. Derek is hoping that he can patch things up with Elaine, and he does his best to change her mind about him. On the other hand, everything that Norman does for Uncle Russell draws criticism from the oldster. Things get really out of hand when Norman has to assist Uncle Russell to the toilet and Norman’s hand gets trapped under Uncle Russell. Mind you, this is only the set-up for even more hilarity that follows.

Between the wrongly delivered corpse and Uncle Russell’s antics, “Death at a Funeral” has enough high-jinks to keep you chuckling out loud. Dull moments are few and far between, and this superficial but funny Paramount Pictures gagfest never loses track with its objective: making us laugh. The refreshing thing about “Death at a Funeral” is how LaBute confines the most action to the family household without inducing a sense of claustrophobia. Anybody who enjoys Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan will have a rollicking good time at this contagiously funny, but dark comedy about mortality and the secrets that death exposes about an individual.