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Clearly set in modern Britain, but predicated on traditional notions of its national character, Death at a Funeral exploits the contrast between buttoned-up old England and its contemporary inhabitants’ more unzipped behavior. Like Four Weddings and a Funeral, only without the weddings, this ensemble comedy features a well-meaning, stuttering protagonist, a cast of standard-issue eccentrics—there’s even a clueless clergyman and a harrumphing old retired military officer—and a gay angle.
At first, director Frank Oz and writer Dean Craig—both Britons, although Oz is best known as a Muppeteer and the voice of Yoda—rely on the sort of gags that characterized ’50s English comedies. In the opening scene, an undertaker’s van arrives at a picturesque country home, and the humor comes from everyone’s soft-spoken befuddlement when the casket turns out to contain the wrong body. While that problem is being addressed, the level of hysteria begins to rise. Would-be writer Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), the son of the dead man, tries to calm his mother (the marvelous Jane Asher, whose acting career has been permanently overshadowed by her mid-’60s status as Paul McCartney’s girlfriend). Daniel is also busy avoiding a discussion with his wife, Jane (Keeley Hawes), because he doesn’t have the money to buy the London apartment she desperately wants. He hopes to get some cash from his brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), a star novelist who lives in New York, but Robert arrives with the news that he’s broke. Daniel is not especially articulate, but he has been the dutiful son, and he’s peeved when everyone assumes his wayward sibling will be delivering the eulogy.
Meanwhile, Daniel’s cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) prepares to attend the funeral with uptight fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk) and her drug-dealer brother, Troy (Kris Marshall). Simon is nervous about encountering Martha’s father (Peter Egan), who’s already made it clear that his daughter deserves better. So Martha gives him one of her brother’s pills, which she assumes is a mild sedative. In fact, it’s a heavy-duty hallucinogen. Martha tries to keep Simon under control but is distracted by obnoxious would-be suitor Justin (Ewen Bremner). As Simon freaks and Jane rages, one more complication arrives: Peter (Peter Dinklage), a small man with a big secret about the man who’s about to be eulogized. Here’s where the “death” thing comes in, although the movie’s title may not be literal.
An improvement over Oz’s last film, 2004’s incoherent remake of The Stepford Wives, Death at a Funeral starts as a comedy of manners but becomes increasingly rude. Shifting to sexual and excretory material, the movie even manages to top the moment in Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when Steve Martin deliberately fouls his pants. The film has to go somewhere from its opening tone of genteel perplexity, of course, but the shift to cruder material undermines the carefully established disposition while yielding more groans than laughs. While the performers remain convincingly well-mannered throughout, the outrages they endure will test the viewer’s stiff upper lip.