A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 485 – Death at a Funeral (2010)

Death at a Funeral (2010) – June 28th, 2011

Back when we first watched the original version of this movie we really didn’t know what we were going to see. And then we loved it! But at the time I recall thinking that the style of humor and the way it was presented was so very British, I couldn’t imagine how it would play if redone with an American cast. So we figured hey, why not check it out and see? So we bought this and then we put it in our collection and didn’t watch it and didn’t watch it. No particular reason. We just always seemed to pick something else. But I admit, I’d been really curious.

I do find it slightly odd that this movie even got made, mostly because it’s not like the original was old or outdated or even in another language. There are no real barriers to an American audience watching the original aside from the British accents and British countryside setting. And as barriers go, those are flimsy ones. But then there is a bizarre habit on the part of US tv to remake British tv shows. They tend not to do so well. Witness the British and US versions of Coupling. Or don’t. Just go watch the first couple of seasons of the British version. It’s better that way. It’s a strange concept to me. That’s all.

But then I grew up on British television. British comedy, specifically. American sitcoms just never appealed to me the same way. So I probably never would have picked up the remake on my own. Without this project, even, I’d have likely left it on the shelf. And sadly, I think I might have been right to do so. I won’t say this was an entirely bad movie. It definitely has some fun performances and some great moments and it certainly captures the humor of the original in places. But overall I think it’s just plain trying too hard. Trying to capture the essence of a thoroughly British comedy with a thoroughly American cast and not quite managing to meld the two styles well enough to pull it off. So it just comes off as somewhat desperate in places.

It’s difficult to define the specific differences in style. The best I can do is say that the American version is far more blatant in its attempts at humor. So many of the jokes are spelled out and elaborated upon as if the movie doesn’t trust the audience to find them funny without additional prompting. I don’t so much like when a movie acts like I need to be told how to react to it. Let your story and actors do the job, thank you. Showing, not telling. I don’t want this whole review to be an exercise in comparison, but really, part of the brilliance of the original is how contained everyone is. It makes the explosions and outbursts that much more shocking. The humor is in the hushed tones and the build-up. I once read an interview with Patrick Stewart where he defined being British through an anecdote about falling off a surfboard and struggling in the water. Two other surfers paddled by and asked if he was okay and he said yes, hoping that they would understand that by ‘yes’ he actually meant ‘help me, I’m drowning’. And that’s how the original plays. In the US? We’d say ‘Hell no, get me out of this water!’ And that never happened here.

The trouble, I think, is that most of the cast, while excellent, struggled with how to take these thoroughly British roles and lines and perform them as Americans. Because this cast isn’t British and the story has ceased to be British, but the performances are still quiet and somewhat contained. Unfortunately, without the tension present in the originals, where a tight ‘I’m fine’ clearly means ‘I’ve got a dead body in the study’, that quietness just comes of as dull. And never in my life did I think I would be describing Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock as dull. There’s just no real spark there. It’s like they’re reciting the lines without making the parts their own. Like they were trying too hard to make the same movie as the original and missed out on making the remake special. And it could have been so much more.

The evidence for the potential this movie had is some of the other performances. Specifically, I think Columbus Short did a fantastic job as Jeff, the pharmacist who brews up a powerful hallucinogen that three people in the movie end up taking. Now, this is one of my favorite parts in the original but Short isn’t just rehashing the role of Troy. No. His delivery is fantastic in every line. He reacts well and he emotes well and he’s just generally fantastic. In fact, that whole subplot of the movie is well done. The main plot of the movie revolves around the funeral of a family patriarch and all of the horrible things that happen during it. His two sons, Aaron and Ryan here, bicker constantly over responsibility and money and jealousy and his widow belittles Aaron’s wife (and I’ll come back to that) and Aaron, who’s been taking care of his parents for some time wants to break free and there’s a hypochondriac friend of the family and a friend of a friend of the family who’s after the deceased’s niece and it’s a thorough mess. But then there’s a subplot about the niece, Elaine, and her fiance, Oscar, and how her father hates Oscar and Oscar ends up naked on the roof, totally hopped up on LSD.

I love this plot. I love every hideously embarrassing moment of it. I loved it in the original and I love it here. Zoe Saldana is fabulous as always and plays Elaine perfectly. I already mentioned Short as her brother, who concocted the drugs Oscar’s on through the movie. And then there’s James Marsden as Oscar. It’s a great role and Marsden does a great job with it. Every time this plot took over the screen I found myself paying more attention and laughing more. The cast for this subplot just seemed to bring their own takes on the situation and it works. The only detraction for me is Luke Wilson as the friend of the family who’s got a thing for Elaine. It’s a messy role and there’s this additional motivation for him where he’s not really after Elaine he’s after her father’s money and I get it, but it’s weak because it’s never really given much time. Ron Glass does a fine job as the father, but Wilson never seems sure of what he’s after so you never really get a feel for what he’s up to aside from bugging the crap out of Elaine.

Now, speaking of additional motivation, that’s something that was added to Aaron and his wife’s situation. And I actually really quite liked the idea of it. They’re not just trying to move out. They’re trying to start a family and have a baby, which has been difficult, apparently. And this is all introduced well and given a couple of good moments for Regina Hall as Aaron’s wife, Michelle (and overall I think Hall did very nicely with what she was given). There’s more there for the conflict between Michelle and Aaron’s mother, Cynthia. And Cynthia, played by Loretta Divine, is fantastically and serenely biting and grief-stricken, so the additional lines about wanting a grandchild play well. If only they played more. Because that little bit of motivation seems to disappear about halfway through the movie, like the writers forgot they’d introduced it. Which is how a lot of the newer material feels.

Overall I felt like this movie had promise, because it’s still a fun premise and a whole lot of what made the original fun is still in there. They’ve even still got Peter Dinklage as the blackmailer who shows up at the funeral with some secrets about Aaron and Ryan’s father. And he’s great. And Danny Glover is fun as the grumpy uncle and all the pieces are there and then some. But it comes together sloppily. Whether it’s the addition of more obvious joke lines or more motivation, the lackluster performances from the two leads or just that it’s really hard to make a British comedy into an American comedy, I don’t know. After watching it we immediately put in the original while we worked on our reviews. I really wanted to like this movie and I liked bits and pieces of it. But I just couldn’t manage to like the whole package together.

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June 28, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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