Well-crafted British comedy finds humor in death

Posted: August 17, 2007

For those in need of a big splash of bathroom humor, nervous-ninny gay jokes and a naked guy on the roof stoned out of his gourd, Death at a Funeral is just what the doctor, or the mortician, ordered.

A well-crafted British farce - albeit one with an American director, Frank Oz, working the controls - this throwback to the haughty high jinks of vintage Ealing comedies begins with an obvious, but effective, gag: The wrong body is delivered to the staid country home where a funeral is set to commence. Back to the mortuary rush the bumbling, embarrassed crew, to return, in the nick of time, with the right stiff.

And so the folks gather for the last rites - a neurotic gang of relatives, in-laws, business colleagues and who-knows-who. Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), son to the deceased, is the glum host of the afternoon affair. He and wife, Jane (Keeley Hawes), still live in the family home, much to Jane's chagrin. Daniel's brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), is a famous novelist who's jetted in from New York for the occasion. Sibling relations are anything but good.

Then there's cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) and her rattled fiance, Simon (Alan Tudyk), eager to make an impression on the family he's about to marry into. However, Simon has been mistakenly dosed up with psychedelics - and so the straitlaced Londoner starts giggling uncontrollably, squawking like a bird, and yes, climbing out of the bathroom window, clothes-less, onto the eaves.

And what's with that American dwarf dude (a game, and good, Peter Dinklage)? He claims to have known the deceased, but nobody seems to know him. And he has photos to prove it - compromising snapshots for a man with a widow and two grown sons, even if that man is dead.

Death at a Funeral rolls out various mishaps and misunderstandings, working the ricocheting physics of the screwball farce to varying degrees of success. There's a lumpy predictability to some of the proceedings, while others - notably the messy business about what to do with an unanticipated corpse - result in an agreeable run of laughs.

The mostly British ensemble can do this stuff in their sleep, but Macfadyen and Donovan and Graves, especially, work up the necessary antic angst and silliness. It's all very old-fashioned, even if there are illicit drugs and errant fecal matter involved.


Death at a Funeral *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Frank Oz. With Matthew Macfadyen, Rupert Graves, Keeley Hawes, Daisy Donovan, Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage. Distributed by MGM Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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