In 2007 talented director Frank Oz (and voice of Fozzy Bear) released a brilliantly funny British farce called Death at a Funeral in America. No one saw it. Except me that is. I showed up at an empty theater and watched it, laughing my ass off, all alone. A day later its theatrical run was over, it never had a chance. Because it wasn't ever really marketed, Frank Oz's farce never found an audience. Instead it ended up on our list of the most overlooked movies of the decade. Now only three years later, Sony's remaking it.
It's not as if the original movie was inaccessible. Sure most of the actors were British, but as Americans, we speak the same language. No subtitles required. But now Death at a Funeral has been repurposed as a Chris Rock vehicle and so in an effort to understand why I've decided to let both versions duke it out, head to head, in a scene by scene comparison.
The scenes used below were chosen not by me, but by Sony, based on the clips they've released from their new movie to the press. This should then, in theory, give Death at a Funeral 2010 the advantage since Sony has chosen the scenes they'd most like to represent the new movie and I'm forced to simply pull the equivalent scene out of the original film regardless of whether it's a good representation of Frank Oz's work or not. Game on.
This is the very first scene in the Frank Oz directed Death at a Funeral and its likely to be near the beginning in the remake edition. We'll start with the 2007 Death at a Funeral interpretation.
As you can see, in Death 07 things start pretty quietly. Though what happens is sort of bizarre, it's presented in a way that seems real. If this were to happen, you can believe this is how it might play out in real life. The actors' reactions are subdued but Oz gives them plenty of time to react.
Now it's Death 2010's turn:
By contrast Death at a Funeral 2010 seems intent on filling every frame of this scene with talking. There's never really time for Chris Rock to react to what's happening, let alone react in a realistic way. His character never has that moment to really take it all in. They've also attempted to amp things up by making the corpse Asian. It lets Chris Rock make a Jackie Chan joke but takes away from the reality of the situation. While you can believe the scene in the Death at a Funeral 07 version might actually occur, this take on the scene is nowhere near reality. More on why that matters in just a minute.
That Wasn't Valium
In this scene a brother and sister arrive at the funeral with the sister's boyfriend. Earlier in the film we've seen them getting ready to leave and the boyfriend, played by Alan Tudyk in the original and James Marsden in the remake, is nervous, so his girlfriend gives him what she believes to be Valium. It isn't. Here's the Death at a Funeral 2007 take:
This is the first really huge, huge laugh of Death at a Funeral 07 and part of the reason it plays so well is that much of the movie, as it was in the first scene we showed you, has up till now been pretty grounded in reality. Now that's contrasted with an absolutely ridiculous occurrence in which Alan Tudyk's character Simon has accidentally been given hallucinogenic drugs. Because it's so crazy, especially compared to how grounded everything's been up till now, the laugh is huge.
A lot of the credit also has to go to Tudyk, who gives an incredibly hilarious performance throughout the film. This is one of his best moments here. It's worth noting that even while Tudyk's behavior grows gradually more and more outrageous, the reaction of everyone around him remains fairly grounded in reality. Troy (Kris Marshall) knows that what Simon's been given isn't Valium, but he's hesitant to tell his sister that he's been carrying around illegal substances. He'll tell her later, but his first reaction is to step back and take it all in. That works. Everyone sort of gets out of the way and simply lets Tudyk be funny.
Now the remake takes a shot at the same scene:
The Death at a Funeral 2010 take on this moment suffers from much the same problem as the previous scene did. They seem intent, again, on filling every second in the scene with talking. The characters blather on constantly and though James Marsden seems like he might actually be doing something pretty funny here, the movie's unable to get out of his way enough to let him do it. Where Tudyk got several long, unbroken shots to simply wander around being ridiculous, Marsden's drug-addled moments look as though they were cut together from footage filmed on different days. It loses a lot of the uncomfortable, awkwardness which made the other version work so well. Instead of letting Marsden be funny, the film's too busy having Columbus Short blurt out the acid reveal that Death 07 delayed until later, to take in what's going on.
There's Someone Alive In There!
In this scene the movie's lead Daniel (or Aaron in the remake version), has spent the day struggling to come up with a speech. Now he finally has to give it and everything suddenly goes nuts. Death at a Funeral 2007, as always you get to go first:
Here again, Death at a Funeral 2007 successfully contrasts the real with the surreal. Daniel's speech is halting and boring. He seems nervous and he stands behind the casket almost as if he's hiding from his audience. He's obviously not a trained public speaker and he seems exactly like a son grieving for his father but unable to find the right words. That's contrasted with the ridiculous in front of him. As he struggles to make it through his speech things gradually grow worse and worse, funnier and funnier as Tudyk draws more and more attention to himself.
Can Death at a Funeral 2010 top it? Watch:
Chris Rock actually does his job here. He seems awkward and unprepared. He doesn't stand behind the coffin, presumably because he's Chris Rock and somebody wanted all of him front and center, but he rattles off his boring speech adequately. The problem is James Marsden who is, pretty clearly, no match for the brilliant comedic timing of Tudyk. He's simply not funny. He seems more like some sort of douche bag than a guy out of his mind tripping on hallucinogenics. But maybe it's not all his fault.
Death 2010 is in kind of a rush here. The 07 version took this scene and let it build. The 07 version is funny because it starts slowly and things snowball. Tudyk slowly goes nuts in the audience, becoming more and more freaked out by what he sees. Marsden just sort of stands up, says his lines, knocks over the coffin for no discernable reason, and then everyone makes a lot of incomprehensible noise. Even if the audience wanted to laugh, the movie never really gives them time to. The 2007 version is nearly two and half minutes long. The 2010 version takes less than a minute.
The Truth About Dad
It's important to understand where this scene is coming from. The entire premise of Death at a Funeral is that there's a secret about Daniel's dead father which he's absolutely terrified will get out. In this clip he's revealing that secret to his brother, not because he wants to tell him, but because he desperately needs his help to keep it. Death at a Funeral Classic, take it away:
Daniel finds his brother Robert (Rupert Graves) hitting on a pretty girl. Earlier in the film it's been established that Robert is kind of playboy so this isn't surprising, it's just a confirmation of his character. Daniel, terrified that someone might overhear what he's about to tell Robert, drags him to a back room and shuts the door where he reveals his secret. But it's a secret that's so shocking, so completely unexpected, that at first Robert simply doesn't get it. His reaction is utterly real but also insanely funny as he struggles to wrap his head around the idea that his dead dad was gay and into midgets.
Here's how Death Do Over handles it:
The premise remains the same, but it's rushed and more clumsily executed in the remake. It starts with a far more obvious allusion to Robert's (now renamed Ryan and played by Martin Lawrence) womanizing ways. The scene seems constructed primarily so Chris Rock can wander in and crack a one-liner. Keep in mind here that this is a man who's just learned something shocking and he's supposed to be terrified of someone else finding out. He's also supposed to be grieving for his dead father, but instead of seeming concerned he's wandering out to the pool to crack Sponge Bob jokes at his brother's expense.
In this version, for some reason they also fail to go somewhere private. Sure they're alone at the pool but someone could wander in at any moment and learn the terrifying secret he's desperate to keep. Chris Rock doesn't seem concerned. Lawrence's Ryan on the other hand, seems to have little problem comprehending what he's being told. He gets it right away and starts mugging for the camera.
Just Say No To Blackmail
In this sequence Daniel/Aaron decides not to pay the guy who's blackmailing them. Strangely, in both versions the blackmailer is played by the great Peter Dinklage. In the 2007 version this sequence is actually split into two scenes, so watch both 07 videos below to get the full picture.
This is one of the film's most pivotal sequences and also one of the craziest. The confrontation at the door between Peter Dinklage and Robert is great, Robert's in an absolute panic and so he does something ridiculous and desperate. Andy Nyman is brilliant as Howard as he accidentally wanders into the room and allows himself to easily be fooled into thinking this is something it is not. And the Valium which isn't Valium, which was a player early in the film, appears to make things even crazier. The bottle of Valium is kind of a running gag in Death at a Funeral 07, and giving it to Peter now results in even crazier things later.
Show us what you've got Death 2010:
The remake take on this sequence is actually pretty solid. I like the way they've kept it as one continuous scene instead of splitting it up the way the 2007 version did. It works. Their big mistake is in trying to make it look like Peter (now renamed Frank) has a gun. Clearly they didn't think sheer panic was a good enough reason for Ryan to tackle him. They don't believe their audience is smart enough to understand a complex motivation like that, so they have Ryan scream that Frank has a gun before he tackles him just so we know who the good guys are. It's unnecessary but aside from that, the scene works. Tracy Morgan is a decent stand in for Andy Nyman and it'll be interesting to see how they work in the drugs later on, since they aren't used here. Giving a guy Valium to cure a seizure never made much sense anyway.
So Long And Thanks For The Sex
In this scene, the character played by James Marsden and Alan Tudyk has locked himself in the bathroom where he's spazzing out on pills. His concerned girlfriend waits outside, pounding on the door, trying to convince him to come out. Here's how Death 2007 handles it:
This is a relatively minor, throwaway scene in the original Death. The movie's full of weird little subplots like this which never actually go anywhere important, but serve to give the film and the family layers. Everyone involved has different motivations and even though the movie's following one or two specific stories, in the background different people are doing different things. It gives the film a sense of history, as if these people are real people who had lives before this, and will have lives after it. And because the film's loaded with ridiculously talented character actors, even though it doesn't contribute a lot to the story, this scene's pretty funny. Ewen Bremmer is consistently slimy and creepy as Justin and he lurks throughout the film leering. That leering culminates in a confrontation here.
Let's see what Death at a Funeral: The New Class does with it:
In the remake version Justin has been renamed Derek and he's played by Luke Wilson and the confrontation has turned into a more complex conversation. That might seem good until you remember what's going on behind that door. Zoe Saldana's Elaine is supposed to be concerned about her boyfriend, who's locked behind it having insane hallucinations. In the 2007 version Elaine doesn't even give Justin the time of day, in large part because her mind's on something else. She's freaked out and concerned about the man she loves and she isn't really interested in what Justin has to say. Here, Elaine seems to forget about what's going on with her boyfriend entirely, and becomes wrapped up in hashing out her past relationship with Luke Wilson. In the 2007 you believe that Elaine doesn't care about Justin but here, it seems like maybe there's still a spark between them. Bad news for James Marsden, who's in the other room trippin balls.
We've been through six comparisons and there's a definite pattern. Remake director Neil LaBute has taken a fairly restrained and subtly funny film and made it louder, broader, and faster. Individual scenes take less time but the actors in them react bigger. Complex character motivations are dumbed down to give the audience big, flashing signposts which tell them how to feel. Genuine emotions have been replaced by wisecracks. The next time someone tells you something has been Americanized, think of Death at a Funeral and you'll know exactly what they're talking about.