Some people don’t get British comedy. At times, I’m one of them. I can appreciate several of the Monty Python features, but, well . . . then there’s the others. It’s not just that it’s droll. Sometimes British humor seems like a code one needs to figure out. That’s happily not the case with “Death at a Funeral,” which zeroes in on quirks and foibles and hopes and fears in the collective human experience.
Is there anyone, for example, who’s attended a funeral and not wondered, at some point, about the contents of the closed-lid coffin? Or had sibling rivalry surface at the most surprising and inopportune time? “Meet the Parents” doesn’t have the market cornered on iffy new sons-in-law, either. The list of fathers disapproving of their daughter’s choices is long. Likewise, whether it’s an over-the-counter med or a prescription, hasn’t everyone had an experience (or witnessed an experience) of an accidental O.D.? And hasn’t everyone had someone try to extort money from them at their father’s funeral?
Okay, maybe not that last one, but those are the depths that “Death at a Funeral” plumbs, and such quirky-but-believable incidents and reactions drive the plot. It’s a dark comedy of both situation and character, and that gives us two shots at laughter. I’m not sure how much repeat play this one will get, because so much of it is dependent upon surprise that I won’t even get into plot points. I’ll only say that the story involves a live-in son named Daniel (Matthew Macfayden) who’s made all the arrangements for his father’s funeral at the family manor, and the arrival of various siblings and family friends and their friends for the one-day event. All the action spans a matter of hours. There’s the matter of who’s going to deliver the eulogy, a cousin who brings a friend (which turns out to be not that great of an idea), a crotchety wheelchair-bound uncle, and an opportunist who tries to put the moves on one of the women at a funeral. And who’s the 4’5″ man (Peter Dinklage, “Elf”) that no one seems to know–not even the Reverend (Thomas Wheatley)?
Most of the action takes place inside or on the grounds of the manor in this film, which has the feel of a stage play. Macfadyen does a nice job as the linchpin that keeps the wheels on this comic vehicle, buoyed by an accomplished cast that includes Keeley Hawes, Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Daisy Donovan, Alan Tudyk, Jane Asher, Kris Marshall, and Rupert Graves.
Don’t confuse this with the 2010 all-black version starring Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. Everything here is very understated, but funny nonetheless, and directed by none other than Frank Oz, who worked with Jim Henson for many years and gave voice to such Muppets as Bert, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Miss Piggy. Oz, you may recall, also did the voice of Yoda for George Lucas. He’s had less success directing, having been responsible for bombs like “The Stepford Wives” (2004) and “The Indian in the Cupboard” (1995), and more successful films such as “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), and “The Dark Crystal” (1982). Here he keeps a tight rein over sequences that easily could have been played more over-the-top or manic, pulling almost instantly away from such moments in order to create an ebb-and-flow narrative. And yet there are no sags in this farce. Oz keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, so you might still be thinking about the comedy of one situation while another is unfolding.
“Death at a Funeral” was filmed at Chenies Manor House in Buckinghamshire, England, as well as on the studio set and around London. It’s rated R for language and drug content, but do they even count British swearwords like “wanker”? A man’s buttocks are also shown in what turns out to be one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
“Death at a Funeral” looks terrific in 1080p, transferred to a 50GB disc using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec. Skin tones are natural-looking, and there’s a rich feel to the colors that stops short of hyper-saturated gaudiness. The level of detail is also superb, going well beyond what we appreciate in close-ups and textures. “Death” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
It’s probably no surprise, but the featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that sounds as rich and full-bodied as the film looks. Don’t look for resonance or dynamism, though, because “Death” is mostly a dialogue film with very limited ambient sounds emanating from the rear effects speakers. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. Oz delivers a typical director’s commentary dealing with the business of juggling narrative threads and getting the comic timing right. There aren’t as many anecdotes about filming, though. For that you’ll have to turn to the track featuring writer Dean Craig and actors Andy Nyman and Alan Tudyk–the latter, who talks at length about his difficult assignment of having to be nude for extended takes on a crowded set. This track is funnier to listen to, but not as packed with information as Oz’s.
The MGM titles Fox has been making lately are bare bones insomuch as conspicuously absent is a BD-Java menu that gives viewers a little more flexibility when it comes to playback options. Some of the releases have had zero bonus features, so it’s a nice surprise that this one has two commentary tracks in addition to a mini gag reel and theatrical trailer.
“Death at a Funeral” is a funny film, but it’s not one that I found myself growing passionate about as I watched, or even in retrospect. It’s not a film that, like “Nativity!,” I wanted to tell all my friends about after the end-credits stopped rolling. “Death at a Funeral” isn’t outrageous enough for that. But it’s a funny movie nonetheless.