British farces these days are usually associated with the Monty Python troupe, but Death at a Funeral is a slightly more refined, but equally hilarious, take on silliness executed with British accents. A huge cast jumps into the whole thing with ferocious energy and successfully sells the breakneck pace, while director Frank Oz contributes the kind of off-the-wall humanity we're used to seeing from his acting job, the Muppets. Clocking in at a breathless 90 minutes, Death at a Funeral is never stuffy or staid, but just the right kind of fun.
When most of us think “Frank Oz” we hear some variation on “Do or do not, there is no try”; this, after all, is the man who gave us Yoda, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and dozens of other puppet characters. But he's also had a pretty lengthy career as a director, with a handful of misses (Stepford Wives, The Score) but many more memorable hits (In & Out, Little Shop of Horrors). Happily Death at a Funeral falls into the latter category, an energetic British farce that revels in taking the piss out of the “stiff upper lip” stereotype of our friends across the pond.
Matthew Macfadyen leads a huge ensemble cast as Daniel, the beleaguered son of the recently deceased. He stayed at home while his brother Robert (Rupert Graves), clearly the favorite of his mother (Jane Asher), went off to a successful career as a writer in New York. Daniel is hosting the funeral at his parents' large estate outside of London, but things go wrong from the beginning: the undertakers bring the wrong coffin, with the wrong corpse inside.
As the guests arrive the silliness escalates. Cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) is bringing her new fiance Simon (Alan Tudyk) to meet her father for the first time, but Simon, mistaking hallucinogens for Valium, arrives drugged and manic. Martha's slacker brother Troy (Kris Marshall) is the owner of the drugs who keeps losing the pill bottle throughout the house. In the meantime a mysterious guest (Peter Dinklage) arrives with some dirty secrets from the dead man's past, causing Daniel, Robert, Troy and cousin Howard (Andy Nyman) to try and cover things up while letting the funeral proceed as planned.
But with a man tripping on acid, a bunch of squabbling relatives, and, eventually, another death, of course nothing proceeds as planned. Death at a Funeral could have been a joke-a-minute farce in the vein of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but Oz and screenwriter Dean Craig take care to let their characters evolve as people. Daniel, as the moral and emotional center of the film, grows into his new role as man of the family even while coping with some of the silliest events ever to take place at a funeral. Simon, tripping out of his mind and eventually stripping naked for a climb on the roof, forces Daisy to stand up to her disapproving father and reaffirm her commitment to her fiance.
Tudyk is obviously the standout in the cast, in a role that requires mugging for the camera and, well, strolling around naked. The fact that he's a Texan affecting a British accent only makes the role more impressive. Everyone in the cast is excellent, though, achieving the kind of family dynamic and also expert comic timing that is sorely needed in most dysfunctional family comedies.
The credits at the end show a clip of each actor cracking up at some point on the set, evidence to how much fun was had making the movie. It shows onscreen too. Farces aren't for everyone, but the silliness and outright madness make Death at a Funeral hard to dislike.
Appropriately enough for a movie filled with silly jokes and physical comedy, the gag reel is one of the highlights of the DVD extras. You see as many as five takes of certain scenes, with each actor cracking up at least one time, and often laughter coming from behind the camera as well. There's also an extended scene of Simon on his drug-addled freakout in the bathroom, playing with a roll of toilet paper, that practically makes you wish the entire movie was about him.
It's the commentary track with director Frank Oz that's the true gem for this DVD. Oz, with his voice that hides shades of Yoda and Miss Piggy, talks like a patient film professor, explaining the intricacies of shooting on both a sound stage and on location, and coordinating the extras who mill about in the background as mourners. He sometimes ends explanatory sentences with a questioning “OK?”, as if you're supposed to be taking notes. It's more fun than a lecture, though, since Oz clearly delights in recounting his experience on the set. He apologizes repeatedly for gushing too much about the actors and their talent, but when he explains how many lines and acting choices were ad-libbed by the actors themselves, you realize he's telling the truth. He also emphasizes the importance of the underlying dramatic story, and with his explanation you realize what a balancing act it was to keep the whole movie together. Oz occasionally repeats himself, but his commentary overall is incredibly informative and, like the movie, consistently lively.
The second commentary track comes from screenwriter Dean Craig and actors Alan Tudyk, and Andy Nyman. It seems like a strange grouping until you realize the screenwriter was on set the entire time, participating in and approving the ad libs. It gets a bit awkward at times as the actors talk about the scenes they changed and lines they cut, but for the most part the three seem to genuinely get along. Many of their anecdotes are the same as Oz's, about two cast members' pregnancies and off-screen details, but hearing Nyman and Tudyk talking about taking on such strange characters is particularly winning.
The commentaries make you wish there were some sort of interviews with the rest of the cast, but alas, that's it for bonus features. The gag reel seems like it could have been twice as long, and glaringly absent are all the improvved scenes that Oz and the others talk about on the commentaries. Deleted scenes would also have been excellent-- Tudyk talks about several of his scenes that were cut that would inevitably be hilarious to see.
So really, there's nothing wrong with what's on the DVD extras, but it's what missing that hurts. If the shoot was as much fun as they say it was on the commentaries, it seems like there's a lot of footage that we're missing. Still, what we do get is so fun, especially Oz's commentary, that it's not really right to complain. Both commentaries for Death at a Funeral add to the movie's sense of fun and goodwill, and also reminds you just how much work and talent it takes to make something so good.