Death 'n' yucks, hallucinogens 'n' stiff upper lips

Six gags in 'Death at a Funeral' live up to director Frank Oz's reputation for farce

By MATT ZOLLER SEITZ  /  NY Times News Service , New York

Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 16

There's no dearth of rude humor on screens right now, but Death at a Funeral stands apart because its characters - mostly reserved upper-middle-class British folk who have gathered to bury a patriarch - are determined to keep a stiff upper lip no matter what. That's no small feat when one of the mourners has ingested a psychedelic drug and another is secretly holding a would-be blackmailer hostage in a room mere meters from where the body lies in state.

Death is the latest feature from the Muppeteer-turned-farceur Frank Oz. Although his directorial track record is spotty (he made the near-classics Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger, as well as the tedious remake of The Stepford Wives), he has a knack for peppering safe commercial projects with ecstatically deranged situations.

There's nothing in Death that tops the craziest sight gag in Bowfinger: a dog in pumps ambling through a parking garage. But Dean Craig's screenplay offers at least six moments that come close, and it's hard to describe them without ruining their impact. Suffice it to say Oz stages them with such wicked glee that they eclipse the movie's problematic aspects (more about those in a moment) and its reflexive, mostly regrettable attempts to add "heart," an organ that should be banned from farce unless the director intends to jam a steak knife through it.

Heart is represented by the movie's hero, Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen of Pride and Prejudice), a super-responsible sad sack who arranged his father's funeral. Daniel is a would-be writer who has promised his wife (Keeley Hawes) that they'll move out of mom's house one day. He's terrified of delivering a eulogy in the presence of his brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), a pampered hotshot novelist who has flown in first class from New York yet pleads poverty when asked to cover his half of the funeral expenses. Daniel must also juggle the emotional demands of myopic, squabbling guests and the anxiety of an overscheduled reverend (Thomas Wheatley) whose timetable is thrown out of whack when the deceased's body - well, I won't spoil that gag, because it's one of the six.

There's no doubt that Daniel will steel himself, restore gravity to the event and deliver a stirring valediction. But Oz and Craig don't go easy on him. The strait-laced Simon (Alan Tudyk) is frightened to be in the same room as his potential father-in-law (Peter Egan), so his fiancee, Daniel's cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan), filches him a Valium belonging to her brother, Troy (Kris Marshall). Unfortunately for Simon, Troy is a freelance drug chemist, and that Valium is actually an illegal experimental hallucinogen; over the course of the film, Simon (played with phenomenal focus by Tudyk) goes from stoner bliss to cokehead paranoia to clothes-rending madness and eventually ends up - oops, sorry; that's another one of the six.

The cast of characters also includes the dead man's widow (Jane Asher), whose seemingly vast reserves of patience slowly evaporate; a family acquaintance named Justin (Ewen Bremner), who tagged along hoping to steal Martha's heart; and Daniel's best friend, Howard (the scene-stealing fussbudget Andy Nyman), a germophobe assigned to accompany Daniel's cantankerous, wheelchair-using Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), who is therefore guaranteed to wind up on the receiving end of the nastiest of Oz's six sensational gags.

The most striking guest is a mysterious dwarf named Peter (Peter Dinklage) who shows up uninvited, reveals a secret, demands a share of the family fortune and spends much of the film hog-tied and abused. Peter's short stature and homosexuality are presented as an obvious (albeit comic) source of menace, and the script - which goes out of its way to make every other character at least fitfully endearing - never treats him as anything but a ridiculous inconvenience.

Farces aren't supposed to be polite, but Peter's treatment feels singularly cheap. It takes an infamous, sardonic Randy Newman lyric at face value: "Don't want no short people 'round here."