I'll say this about Death at a Funeral, the latest film starring Chris Rock: it keeps the comedian's streak of disappointing film work alive. Though he's backed by a supporting cast of strong actors and fellow comedians -- including Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan and Kevin Hart -- the movie amounts to little more than a lot of noise and flopsweat. Rock, who remains one of the single funniest and most talented stand-up comedians working today, can't seem to catch a break on the big screen; movie after movie fails to take advantage of his gifts. Death at a Funeral attempts to cover up for the casting of Rock as a stiff straight man by surrounding him with as much manic business as possible. The result is that while Rock comes off better than most, he's still stuck in the middle of a comedy that never quite works no matter how hard it pushes and tries.
Rock stars as Aaron, the oldest son in a family that's just lost its patriarch. His wife (Regina Hall) is on his case about making a baby, and his younger, much more successful brother (Martin Lawrence) has blown into town to attend the funeral and soak up all the family's affection. Also attending the funeral is Aaron's cousin (Zoe Saldana) and her boyfriend (James Marsden), who has accidentally ingested some hallucinogens and is getting increasingly weird as the day goes on; family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan), who's been charged with taking care of miserable grouch Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), and a stranger (Peter Dinklage) who holds a big secret about Aaron's father -- and the photographs to back up his claims.
Death at a Funeral is a remake of a 2007 British comedy (directed by American Frank Oz; is anyone else disturbed that we're remaking films that are only three years old?), but the very Britishness of the original is what makes the premise funny. There's comedy in seeing a collection of polite, proper people in a progression of desperate and absurd situations while still trying to maintain some sense of decorum. The problem with this louder, raunchier remake (directed by playwright Neil LaBute) is that nearly all of the characters begin the film as loud, broad caricatures; as the absurdity is ramped up, most of them have nowhere else to go. It's a big, loud movie that tries to be funny by only getting bigger and louder. I was reminded of the recent Date Night, which similarly squanders a talented cast of comedians on a noisy, obnoxious movie. There are a lot of funny people in Death at a Funeral, but LaBute doesn't quite know how to take advantage of what makes them funny. He simply puts the camera on them and hopes that they'll get laughs just by being themselves. That might have even worked, too, if the film didn't just continue to heap on more and more ridiculous plot. It becomes too much for everyone to negotiate and still be funny.
And then there's Chris Rock, who's faster and funnier than just about any entertainer you could name at the moment. He's not bad in Death at a Funeral, but he's also not needed for the role -- it's the kind of part that could have been played by just about anyone able to exude decency (harder than you might think) and react to crazy situations. Rock is a verbal assassin; he needs a script that's as smart as he is, or at least a director with the confidence to leave him room to rant. He needs just one scene like the one in 48 Hrs. where Eddie Murphy takes over the redneck bar, but after over a dozen leading roles in movies he still hasn't had just one scene that would make him a movie star. In Death at a Funeral, he's the calm in the storm. He ought to be the one standing outside of the storm, making fun of it.
- Death a Funeral is Rated R for language, drug content and some drug humor.
- Release Date: 4/16/10
- Running Time: 90 minutes
- Studio: Screen Gems