British comedy puts the “fun” in Funeral

By Ryan Pike

Funerals are not typically very exciting. They usually consist of teary-eyed relatives gathering together and bemoaning the fate of their loved one. The antics at funeral are generally low-key, fairly depressing and in no way funny. Frank Oz simultaneously embraces and rejects these time-honoured rules of funerals with his latest film, Death at a Funeral.

Following the death of his father, Daniel (Matthew Macfayden) must gather his extended family together to honour him. His efforts are hampered by his grief-stricken mother (Jane Asher), hot-shot author brother Robert (Rupert Graves) neglecting to pay for his half of the funeral, girlfriend Jane (Keeley Hawes) constantly reminding him to put a deposit on a flat and the priest (Thomas Wheatley), who’s only paid to stick around until three o’clock. Factor in the presence of the rest of Daniel’s peculiar family and friends–including a small man (Peter Dinklage) with a large secret–and the funeral is quite the interesting affair.

Director Frank Oz chooses to present the events of the funeral in a straightforward manner. It’s a somber event, meant to be taken seriously. This approach seemingly amplifies the wackiness. There’s a certain kind of filmmaker that giggles when a funeral home mistakenly delivers the wrong casket and Oz seems to be of that breed. Blessed with a razor-sharp script from relative newcomer Dean Craig–his only other “major” work is last year’s forgotten feature Caffeine–Death at a Funeral contains a vast menagerie of characters, each arriving at the service with their own host of problems. The levity given to the problems is surprisingly real. Matters of life, death, love and hate are handled with the appropriate care and attention, while more trivial manners are laughed at and cast aside.

The characters and their problems would be meaningless without the stellar cast assembled by Oz and his crew. Comprised of an almost-entirely British cast, Death at a Funeral has only a trio of actors whom audiences may easily recognize–Pride and Prejudice’s Matthew Macfayden, Serenity’s Alan Tudyk and The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage–and none are what most would consider big-name stars. The result is a film where characters are what registers with the audience, rather than “didn’t I see that fellow on a show once?” While Macfayden and real-life wife Keeley Hawes provide the dignified rock by which the film is anchored, Alan Tudyk steals the show. Following the accidental consumption of various hallucinogenic drugs, Tudyk’s character proceeds to spend the next hour in a glorious state of hyperactive, euphoric, semi-clothed disarray. Andy Nyman spends the film twitching and worrying, while Peter Vaughan is fantastic as an old curmudgeon who spits vulgarities at everyone he meets. The actors are talented enough that it’s impossible to get tired of their antics and Oz is smart enough to spread the film’s attention throughout the large cast, ensuring the possibility never arises.

In a period where American cinema seems to think the peak of comedy is a pair of Kazakhstanis wrestling naked in a hotel room, Death at a Funeral shows that a film can be hilarious without much nudity or swearing. For British-born, American-trained director Frank Oz, the film is the latest entry on a stellar comedic filmmaking resume that includes Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob? and Bowfinger. Who ever thought that the guy who made his name doing the voices of Yoda and the Muppets could also make funerals something audiences want to attend? Thanks to Oz’s approach, Death at a Funeral stands tall as one of the finest comedies of 2007.