Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Zoe Saldana, Peter Dinklage, Loretta Devine, Ron Glass, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Tracy Morgan, Columbus Short, and Luke Wilson
I still remember the awkwardness.
There's not much that's more awkward than being the white valedictorian at a 95% black college, an awkwardness tempered by the awareness of my own "minority" status as an adult with a severe disability and the overwhelming acceptance I experienced while at student at Indy's Martin University.
So, I have an idea how it must feel for James Marsden to completely steal the thunder from the largely black cast of this Death at a Funeral remake, a largely faithful remake transplanted into a contemporary, urban funeral with two constantly in conflict brothers, Aaron (Chris Rock) and Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who are struggling to hold their family together long enough to pull off their father's funeral.
Holding this family together ain't easy.
Aaron is a wannabe writer with an unpublished manuscript and a wife (Regina Hall) determined to become a mother so her incessantly nagging mother-in-law (Loretta Devine) will get off her back, while Ryan is a faux successful writer of literary trash whose multiple books have left him a family symbol of success even if it is more based on style than substance. Add to the mix cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and her very white fiance' Oscar (James Marsden), grumpy Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and family friends Norman (Tracy Morgan) and Derek (Luke Wilson) along with a mysterious visitor of short stature whose identity isn't a mystery for long.
As the advertising notes, this is one very sad family.
Surprisingly faithful to the 2006 British original farce, kudos go to screenwriter Dean Craig for successfully adapting his own material to an entirely different setting and having a remarkably successful go at it despite performances that far too often veer off into Tyler Perry's left field of histrionic familial humor.
What at first appears as yet another urban comedy set in yet another family gathering quickly gets turned on its early when a vial of a hallucinogenic mix mislabeled as valium first falls into the hands of Oscar and then makes an appearance at the funeral itself thanks to Jeff (Columbus Short), who is either family or friend of Elaine but whose identity is never fully explained.
Then, the mysterious man of short stature, Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the 2006 original), reveals his reasons for attending this family gathering and all sorts of mayhem is set in motion.
While Death at a Funeral works surprisingly well, it isn't because of either Rock or Lawrence, both of whom are miscast here. While neither performer is particularly awful, Rock lacks the emotional range and depth that made the original film particularly satisfying and funny while Lawrence is simply doing another prancing, preening player shtick from his endless repertoire of prancing, preening players.
Instead, Death at a Funeral is worth watching almost exclusively for the adorable and hilarious coupling of Oscar and Elaine. At first glance, Marsden's strong screen presence and radiant personality as Oscar seems a frightful mismatch for the more stoic, grounded Elaine. Yet, amazingly quickly, both Saldana and Marsden feel like a comfortable couple and the adventures that follow are not only laugh out loud hilarious but filled with so much heart and humanity that you can't help but smile every single time they show up onscreen.
Alan Tudyk's appearance in the 2006 version was an inspired performance, but Marsden flies infinitely higher (literally!) and finds places to take Oscar that are so freakishly wonderful to watch that you can't help but marvel at this still underrated actor. His scene involving a certain highly esteemed beloved church hymn still leaves me laughing as it comes to mind. Marsden's chemistry is amazing with Saldana, who returns to this critic's good graces after that certain James Cameron film from last year that I love to bash. Saldana herself complements Marsden perfect, a slightly more grounded lunacy with just the right amount of sentimentality tossed in. Even as her ex-beau (Luke Wilson) tries to woo her back, the undeniable chemistry between Oscar and Elaine leaves no doubt who the victor will be.
In the film's other demented storyline, Peter Dinklage again shines as a mysterious visitor with a secret to share while Danny Glover is quite the hoot as the wheelchair usin', cane whippin' Uncle Russell. On the other hand, Loretta Devine (a veteran of Tyler Perry films) over-acts immensely as a grieving widow while neither Luke Wilson nor Tracy Morgan leave much of an impression.
Neil LaBute, whose early career was marked by smaller cinematic productions of his gender and social issue-centered stage plays, seems an odd choice to direct this particular production, though his gift for comprehending and translating language to the big screen has always been impressive. Yet, here, too often LaBute seems to rely on cheap, body fluid humor and excessive height jokes that grow weary after awhile. While certain scenes work, and work well, it's hard not to question whether or not the credit lies as much with the cast and Craig's enduring script.
D.P. Rogier Stoffers' camera work is particularly off-putting, driving scenes that are painfully obvious and frenzied physical comedy that plays out as too much frenzy and not enough physical comedy. Christophe Beck's musical score is fine, though not particularly memorable.
Death at a Funeral is most likely to satisfy those unfamiliar with the vastly superior 2006 original and/or those who simply embrace all things Chris Rock or Martin Lawrence. While the film itself is immensely flawed, it contains enough heart and humor to warrant a modest recommendation and fans of James Marsden fans will most assuredly leave immensely satisfied in more ways than one. Far too funny in spots to not recommend, Death at a Funeral is still easily the weakest of this weekend's trio of wide releases including Kick-Ass and The Joneses.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic