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Martin Lawrence, left, and Chris Rock in Death at a Funeral.

Death at a Funeral

  • Directed by Neil LaBute
  • Written by Dean Craig
  • Starring Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Peter Dinklage
  • Classification: 14A

A short three years ago, Death at a Funeral was born as a spotty British farce, opened to a round of thoroughly mixed reviews, and soon passed on to that dusty DVD shelf in the sky where spotty movies go to expire. So why this unseemly haste to resurrect something that had definitely earned its repose? Two words: Chris Rock. Seems he's not just an actor now but a producer too, with enough clout to convince others that it would be a dandy idea to remake a middling black comedy with a mainly black cast. Alas, it's easier to admire the symmetry than the result: Middling gets downgraded to muddling. Of course, on such slippery slopes, reputations are made. Damned if the original isn't looking like a comparative gem.

The setting used to be England, thus allowing the funereal farce to bubble up from a bedrock of stiff upper lips and classic reserve. Most British actors are awfully good at underplaying the overwritten - where others would mug, they demitasse. But we're in L.A. on this go-round and, with Rock joined by the likes of Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan, muggers abound. American comics, especially black American comics, have a multitude of strengths, but reserve ain't one of them. Here the dial starts out pointing at "riotous," and the farce has nothing to build on, making it tough to find the funny in the frenzy.

So the script keeps the plot intact, but then wreaks havoc with the tone. Like the opening scene. Once again, a polished hearse pulls up to a stately home and the white-gloved attendants solemnly heft the casket into the front parlour, where the grieving son opens the lid to discover that it's a … wrong delivery. However, this time the son is Chris Rock, who can't resist stepping out of bereaved character to punch the sight-gag with a shouted ad-lib: "Hey, it's not Burger King. You can't just mess up my order." Funerals are a great mine of dark comedy, but only when there's darkness to violate - this one begins light and bright. It looks like a wake but feels like a wedding.

Consequently, when the mourners assemble along with the outrageous shtick, we never get to enjoy that delicious sense of heresy, of snickering through a sacred ritual. Nope, someone's dead yet no one appears to care - they're way too busy trying to be hilarious to waste time being sad. And the strain shows. Good grief, but making merry can be hard.

From there, the narrative nuttiness is recycled without much change. It's got the same pair of bickering brothers (Rock and Lawrence); the same mislabeled bottle of little white pills, dispensing not Valium but really trippy acid that prompts straitlaced relatives to strip naked and shake their booty on rooftops; the same crotchety uncle with the loose tongue and looser bowels, the latter guaranteed to put the toilet in the humour; the same strange little man (Peter Dinklage again) with the surprising little secret; and, at the climax, the same weeping and gnashing emanating from the one place in any funeral that should be a repository of deathly quiet.

So much sameness, yet so fewer laughs, although, apparently untroubled by the disparity, director Neil LaBute seems pretty much content to let this soul train drive itself. As for the differences, I don't recall any of the original Brits busting a move in the dining room and bellowing, "The catfish nuggets are to die for," but perhaps memory fails me. If so, my failure has plenty of company here. Still, let's not speak ill of the departed and, instead, just depart - certainly, nothing becomes Death at a Funeral like the leaving of it.

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