Monday, January 31, 2011

Death at a Funeral (both versions)

Death at a Funeral (2007; dir. Frank Oz) is a British madcap comedy about a funeral where almost everything conceivable goes wrong. It reminds me of some of the Peter Sellers comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, of the Fawlty Towers television series (1975, 1979), and of old Hollywood comedies such as and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966). Death at a Funeral is fairly well focused, so it almost succeeds in keeping the action within rein. More controlled than some of the aforementioned predecessors, it is prevailingly silly. Characters are well drawn caricatures. At the center of the film are two brothers—one a successful novelist who can’t seem to find the funds to help pay funeral expenses for their father. His brother remained at home with his aging parents, struggles to make ends meet, and is pressured by his wife about finding a place to live now that his father is dead. The successful novelist is really fairly vapid, while his brother has more substance than he knows. There is mordant gallows humor aplenty. No one in the film escapes the numerous satiric jabs it levels: old men, the dead man himself, his wife, the married and unmarried, the minister performing the funeral, a man given the wrong bottle of pills, an opportunistic dwarf. Although the increasingly zany hijinks follow a well-worn slapstick pattern, building towards a climactic moment on the roof of the family home, the film is hilarious and entirely satisfying.

Using almost exactly the same screenplay and shooting script, and nearly identical to the 2006 film on a scene-by-scene basis, the 2010 version of Death at a Funeral (Neil Labute) features a mostly African American cast, with a few exceptions. Danny Glover, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence play the primary characters, with assistance from a generally excellent group of supporting actors. Each actor brings his or her distinctive spin to the film (in particular Glover and Morgan). There are a few topical references to the United States, to basketball, to African American issues, but this is not really an African American film. It’s still basically a British madcap comedy. Even the house and surrounding grounds where the story takes place seems the same. One actor, Peter Dinklage, the dwarf, plays the same role in both films—he’s a fine actor, but just for the sake of spreading the joy around, couldn’t the director have found someone else to play his part in the second film?

Clearly, someone saw money potential in the script used for the original film. But someone also didn’t see money to be made in hiring a new screenwriter to rework the original script. (The script has been mildly revised to allow for American and African American language usage—but even with those differences the line-by-line dialogue is very close in both versions). The assumption must have been as follows: this British film with mainly unknown actors is funny. In fact it’s hilarious. But it doesn’t have any actors in it American audiences recognize. So, hey, why not completely reshoot the film with popular actors and aim it towards a young and African American audience—the sort of audience that would attend a Tyler Perry film--and do a major publicity campaign?—that will make money.

The American version of the film is entertaining and funny. So is the British version. The British version works better because the comedy and the madcap antics seem more naturally attuned to the talents and language and setting of the actors. The American version is neither stilted nor forced, but it does seem contrived. And it’s difficult not to conclude that the only reason for its existence as a filmic replication of the 2006 original is the desire for filthy lucre.

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