Death at a Funeral (***)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

There are certainties in life. We live. We die. All of us experience the loss of a loved one, and what better setting for a laugh-out-loud comedy than a funeral? Everyone can relate to the universal stress of this end-of-life ritual, which is only compounded by the tension in a family gathering where feuds, rivalries and jealousies can boil over.

Dad’s body is barely cold when his clan arrives in Pasadena, California to mourn him. Aaron (Chris Rock) is the new patriarch of the family. He has lived at his dad and mom’s (Loretta Devine) house with his wife (Regina Hall), paying the bills and keeping the family together. When his flashy, nine-months-younger, successful novelist brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence) swoops into town from New York to steal his thunder, old sibling rivalry emerges. Aaron is determined to say the eulogy, and Ryan, mom’s favorite, tries to undermine him.

As relatives gather in the family home, emotions peak. To her father’s (Ron Glass, “Barney Miller”) dismay, cousin Elaine (ZoÎ Saldana) brings her white boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden), who mistakenly ingests hallucinogenic drugs that belong to her brother Jeff (Columbus Short). Elaine’s predicament amuses her ex-boyfriend Derek (Luke Wilson). Cousin Norman (Tracy Morgan) has his hands full taking care of ornery, wheel-chair-bound Uncle Russell (Danny Glover). When a mysterious, little white dude (Peter Dinklage) named Frank shows up and collars Aaron, the manic proceedings hit overdrive. Frank is the gay lover of dear old dad; with incriminating photos in tow, he’s looking for a $30,000 payday to keep their relationship on the DL. OMG!

The original “Death At A Funeral,” a 2007 British film, has been masterfully transformed to an African American setting. Actor/producer Chris Rock, who viewed the British farce and knew it would have legs in America, shepherded this project. Little in the first script (original screenwriter, Dean Craig) has changed, in terms of storyline. What’s new are the nuances of black life, courtesy of Rock and a crazy cast who know how to improvise the hell out of a scene. Director Neil LaBute (“Lakeview Terrace”) keeps a strong reign over the mayhem. Delicious comedy with physical humor (Frank gets thrown around like a rag doll), site gags (Oscar winds up on the roof – nude!), and scatological pranks (Norman gets stuck taking Uncle Russell to the bathroom) prevail.

The crackerjack ensemble of actors milks each moment like old vaudeville pros. Rock as the put-upon eldest son is charmingly funny. Martin, the broke but famous younger sibling, can’t keep his eyes off a svelte 18-year-old funeral attendee: “She may be in high school, but that ass is in grad school.” Regina Hall inappropriately tries to push Rock into bed so they can procreate – even though it’s the day of his dad’s funeral. Tracy Morgan is a comic film genius; he is just so funny, from his facial expressions to his banter. Even dramatic actor Danny Glover finds the humor in the ill-tempered uncle. Peter Dinklage, the only actor to appear in both the original and American version, is even funnier in this film. And bless Loretta Devine; she deserves an Oscar nom for her portrayal as the mother not afraid to show her love for one son over the other.

If you’ve ever attended a funeral that was on the brink of madness, you’ll love this madcap comedy that is so funny it could raise the dead!