Movie Review: Death at a Funeral

| Cadenza Reporter

Nothing bothers me more than wasted talent. And that’s what this film is: a waste. Hollywood has assembled some of the finest actors today to star in a slap-dashed remake of the well-received British film, “Death at a Funeral.” You’d think a film that managed to assemble the likes of Zoe Saldana, Luke Wilson, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover, Chris Rock, James Marsden and Loretta Divine would be able to cobble together something of value. Unfortunately, that is not that the case. All of their talent is squandered. (It should be noted that I have not seen the original, so this review focus solely on the remake.)

First, there’s the issue of confused tone. Surprisingly, the movie is directed by Neil LaBute. Yes, the playwright Neil LaBute, who wrote “The Mercy Seat,” “Reasons to be Pretty,” “The Shape of Things” and “In the Company of Men.” Unfortunately, Mr. LaBute’s talents as a wordsmith do not translate to the film world. The tone of the film changes from scene-to-scene, shifting from drama to melodrama to comedy to mystery. Though elements of different genres can add to the complexity of a film, LaBute’s choices create an unsettling mess.

The second major problem stems from the script, because the characters are flat and disconnected from one another. All of the characters are distractingly sharp-tongued, competing over the number of quips they can squeeze into conversation. No one listens to one another, which may be true of some families, but on screen it reads as obnoxious. If there is dialogue, information should be conveyed and received; otherwise don’t bother writing it.

At its heart, the movie touches on broad issues of love, the impact of death on a family and what it means to mourn. At every opportunity, the film opts for simple gags, punchlines and zingers over what could be honest and grounded in some sort of reality or truth. Interestingly, the screenwriting credit for both the original and American adaptation is the same man: Dean Craig. His decision to push the script into an over-the-top farce with such poorly developed characters leaves me frustrated.

The third problem: Chris Rock himself. I like Chris-Rock-the-comedian as much as the next guy: his hard-edged standup and his roles in “Dogma” and “Down to Earth.” But he is not a dramatic actor. This movie required someone to lift a heavy script, to navigate a swath of emotions and all the while keep the audience engaged. Rock toppled under this weight, never conveying the stakes of his father’s death or his father’s suggested homosexuality. The film would have been far more enjoyable had a real dramatic actor such as Chiwetel Ejiofor been cast as the protagonist. For my part, Rock just doesn’t cut it.

The film does do a few things right. There are some scenes which are amusing and which the audience seemed to love, but those scenes were few and far between. Zoe Saldana, who you may recognize as Neytiri in Avatar or from her role in “Center Stage,” is a great actress (as has already been established). You could tell that both she and Regina Hall, who played Chris Rock’s wife, were constricted by the thin script and Labute’s odd direction. Their dramatic approach to their roles conflicted with the overly comedic style of Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Columbus Short.

Another gripe I had was the shaky camerawork, which was reminiscent of my experience watching “The Blair Witch Project.” (And as a sidenote, Luke Wilson looks terrible. I’m growing increasingly concerned.)

Overall, the film had promise, and it greatly disappointed me. I hope, for the sake of my sanity, the next time such an all-star cast is assembled, the source material is richer and the direction is more consistent. And nobody tell Chris Rock. He will only ruin it.

Directed by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence