In our houses of public culture, audience silence has particular meaning depending on the circumstance. The most beautiful public silence is the respectful one between movements at a classical concert. The saddest silence is the one in theaters where laughter should be going down. Let’s just say that there is a lot of unintended silence in the multiplex theaters where Death at a Funeral is playing. Punch lines die on delivery, outlandish setups and satirical stunt work fizzle, and we’re generally left gaping in awe or boredom at a comedy with many of the right parts and people in place, but with a seriously unfunny end-result.
We want to love and laugh at this Neil LaBute-directed remake of the 2007 Frank Oz-directed British film, with standout African-American comedians Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence, with a zany turn by Danny Glover as the incurably grumpy uncle. Essentially, this is an African-American update of the original (with Peter Dinklage reprising his role), where the funeral of a patriarch becomes a vehicle for petty family squabbles and various darkly comic high jinx, including broadly slapstick maneuvers.
Along the raucous yet somehow bland path, we encounter assorted coffin mishaps, including corpse-as-prop, a double-occupancy gag, and jokes at the expense of African Americans and dwarves (Dinklage). Accidental ingestion of hallucinogens occurs, creating a biochemical backdrop for outrageous and absurd behavior by funeral guests. Feces happens.
Oh, and about that feces factor—Hollywood has taken on and lampooned death and sex (more the latter, of course), partly as a way of confronting the fear surrounding those looming human issues. But the poo taboo remains in place, especially poo of the human sort.
LaBute has made a specialty of dealing with irreverent and morally challenging material and has shown comic incisors with Nurse Betty, but here he can’t seem to connect with the comedy muse within. SNL vets Rock and Morgan—as the “straight man” and the folly-maker with more than just egg on his face, respectively—still have yet to survive the leap from small to big screen.
Makers of Death at a Funeral proudly try to don the badge of bad-taste provocateurs, rebels with a cause. But they fail to earn a more basic merit badge in the comedy racket: the golden sound of laughter.