Weaving together a large ensemble of aggressively irreverent characters is always a delicate pendulum. Revel in the madness for too long and you sacrifice plausibility, curb the outlandishness too closely and sacrifice the slaphappy originality you intended in the first place. Death At A Funeral is a movie brimming with slaphappy originality; unfortunately, it doesn’t revel there long enough, all too often eschewing the fresh and chaotic performances of its company of supporting characters for ad nauseum, stagnant and boring scenes with its two suckholes of main characters. There is absolutely no reason two men that brilliant should be so awful at anything, let alone something like acting which seems at least vaguely related to stand-up comedy. As it stands, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, one of the five greatest emcees of all-time and one of the fifty greatest emcees of all-time and two of the three reasons why one might plan on seeing this film, are its biggest burdens, placidly going through the motions like seasoned pros no longer fighting with desperation while Tracy Morgan, Luke Wilson and Columbus Short ultimately drown amidst their indifference.
Aaron’s (Chris Rock) father just passed away. His mother (Loretta Devine) still can’t figure out why she doesn’t have grandchildren. His uncle Russell (Danny Glover) needs to be picked up from the nursing home. His brother (Martin Lawrence) refuses to pay for his half of the funeral. The creepy white midget (Peter Dinklage) no one knows is claiming to have pictures of an alleged gay affair with his dad. The Reverend (Keith David) is demanding the services get underway; the family friend (Tracy Morgan) is demanding someone look at the rash on his hand; and the ex-boyfriend (Luke Wilson) is demanding Aaron’s cousin (Zoe Saldana) break-up with her new drugged-out boyfriend (James Marsden) and give him another chance. Aaron’s wife (Regina Hall) has also taken off her panties, and his other cousin (Columbus Short) has misplaced a mislabeled pill bottle filled with mescaline. Reading all that at once may make it seem like a little much to deal with at one funeral, but I assure you, this is an extended family who have clearly thrived on secrets and ordered chaos for a long time. Which brings us to the film’s most glaring weakness.: It’s really not that exciting.
You would think an hour and a half film with at minimum ten subplots wouldn’t want for momentum or general intrigue, but sitting through Death At A Funeral is like gym class with an unmotivated teacher who lets you walk the curvy parts of the track. Like the nearside straight-aways, the pacing is occasionally furious and breakneck, but the goddamn fat kids, in this case Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, always find a way to make the catch-your-breath-walks drag on like lazy, pointless asides sandwiching the brief spurts of exuberance.
It’s long been an unwritten rule that farcical comedies need a straight man. The more wacky and hapless the side characters, the more middle-of-the-road the man who ties it all together needs to be. It’s logical, I guess. Someone needs to shake his head at the asinine and the depraved, but Chris Rock is not, nor has he ever been, that guy. And why should he be? No one has ever been able to command a room like Chris Rock. He is a vengeful, hateful, slandering and brilliant son of a bitch when he wants to be, but understated and sheepish are not his best adjectives, a poor fit since Death At A Funeral‘s script asks him to be almost exclusively understated and sheepish. Occasionally, probably because he can’t help it, that brilliant, vengeful son of a bitch we all love comes out, especially when he’s playing opposite Martin Lawrence, which brings us to Death At A Funeral’s second biggest problem. Martin Lawrence.
Martin Lawrence should be a vengeful, hateful, slandering and brilliant son of a bitch. He plays a famous womanizing author who’s having money problems, a role, which should allow him to own nearly every scene he’s in, but for no reason I can even deign to fathom, he plays the brother sheepishly, with an understated, frequently passive demeanor like he’s channeling Chris Rock failing to channel the straight man. Death At A Funeral should be every bit as raucous and unruly as The Hangover or more recently, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Martin Lawrence should be the psychopath leading the parade from the mental institution to the funeral home. Instead, he languishes in the background like the goddamn floral arrangement. Say what you will about Chris Rock’s performance here, but at least his role required him to tone it down. Which brings us to the movie’s biggest strength. No one else tones it down.
Even though a few of the bits don’t quite get there, you have to admire Death At A Funeral‘s supporting cast for trying. Tracy Morgan claims Colonel Sanders pilfered everything but his coleslaw from the slaves. Luke Wilson brazenly kisses his ex-girlfriend while her new boyfriend threatens to jump off the roof. Danny Glover passes out on the toilet. Peter Dinklage rolls with a hairstyle nearly as unkempt as Bill Murray’s in Kingpin. James Marsden knocks over a coffin. It’s balls out comedy, as if director Neil LaBute gave everyone else in the entire cast free reign to break with sensibility. It’s a good thing too. Every time Death At A Funeral slogs to a new boring low, someone takes that freedom and gives the audience a wicked moment of inventive black comedy. Now and again, it’s Chris Rock, but mostly, it’s the unheralded background troupe doing everything they can to free a few lifeboats from the wreckage.
When I was six years old, my eighty-something neighbor died of old age. My father told me in advance that under no circumstance should I comment on the body. As soon as I got there, the deceased’s son walked me up to the coffin and asked how I thought she looked. Horrified, I curtly told him I wasn‘t allowed to answer. My parents and I laughed about it on the way home when my grandmother reminded us a nice old woman had died. Chris Rock is my grandmother. Martin Lawrence is the dead woman. Everyone else is just pissed a couple of bitches ruined our laugh.