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After honing his directorial skills on The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan, Mr. Oz probably got the Little Shop of Horrors gig just because of his vast experience with complicated puppetry. Who knew the guy would deliver one of the slickest, silliest and most entertaining musical comedies ... maybe ever? Three more very solid comedies would follow -- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? and Housesitter -- before Frank tackled family fare once more with The Indian in the Cupboard. Then he delivered Bowfinger, The Score and The Stepford Wives. After that last effort the man was primed for some redemption. And that redemption comes in the most unlikely of packages: A very broad, very British and very funny farce entitled Death at a Funeral. This quick-witted and likable flick combines several of my favorite themes -- ensemble comedy, dark humor, well-crafted slapstick, stuffy British sensibilities, the "all in one day" framework -- and the result is a film that's a whole lot better than one might expect. Eschewing flimsy gimmicks and flashy special effects gags for strong comedic performances and an appreciably brisk pace, Oz seems to be having a very good time with this stagy-yet-effective little farce.
The plot is an efficiently simple beast: An extended family is gathering together to bid farewell to one of their own. They seem like a typically generic lot -- The well-intentioned nebbish, the capricious novelist, the uptight sister, the drug-peddling cousin, the ornery old gramps, and all sorts of peripheral mourners: Cousins, uncles, friends ... and one mysterious guy that nobody seems to recognize. Plus the priest is in a hurry, there might be an extra corpse in the back room, and a few of the funeral attendants are tripping hard on hallucinogens. Also included: blackmail, infidelity, hidden homosexuality ... and just a little stray poop.
To delve much deeper into the various sub-plots and running gags would rob you of too much fun, but suffice to say that after a semi-slow beginning, Death at a Funeral begins to pick up steam big-time -- leading to well-timed series of set-pieces that are really quite hilarious. The movie feels a little like a train: Once it gets some speed behind it, the thing just barrels forward with reckless abandon, tossing out gags that work at an impressively effective rate. And then we hit the crescendo, tie things up with a few sweet moments, and head out of the theater happy and surprised. (Well, I was anyway.)
Second-time screenwriter Dean Craig -- who makes a huge improvement over the obvious and anemic Caffeine -- never allows one character to overwhelm the others, and he's clever enough to give just about everyone a few solid chuckles. Oz balances his characters with a deft hand -- and what a bunch of characters they are! Although there's really no weak link to be found among the ensemble cast, the standouts have got to be Alan Tudyk as a man on an unwelcome "trip," Ewan Bremner as a sleazy cad, Matthew Macfadyen as the nice guy desperately trying to keep the funeral afloat, and Andy Nyman as a well-intentioned George Costanza of the group. (And special points are due to indie immortal Peter Dinklage for earning more laughs with his eyebrows than most actors can do with an entire screenplay.) Frankly I feel bad leaving any of the cast members out; the entire crew is just that good. (Oh, and Peter Vaughan as a nauseatingly nasty old man! He's hilarious!)
Let's face it: 90% of the comedies made nowadays are produced for kids. Once in a while one of the kids' comedies (usually a Judd Apatow one) makes a splash with an older generation and the bucks start rolling in. But I think it's safe to say that Death at a Funeral is a very silly comedy that will definitely appeal to people over the age of 30. Sure there's a little toilet humor, druggie material, and goofball slapstick antics to be found here, but I don't think "grown-ups" mind that stuff at all ... as long as it's funny.