REVIEW: Scatological Stars Align For Death at a Funeral

Movieline Score:

There's a theory suggesting that people who don't like scatological humor harbor a fear of death, and it makes sense: Death is the ultimate example of our bodies turning against us, and in life, anything that reminds us how messily human we are -- and how little control we have over our bodies -- brings us one step closer to the ultimate flush. So in the movies, shouldn't poo jokes and death go together like chocolate and peanut butter?

In Death at a Funeral Neil LaBute runs with that idea, or at least sprints with it. The specifically scatological crudeness really lasts only for one scene, and it involves a Tracy Morgan sight gag that at first seems to go on too long, although ultimately, it's the character's prolonged horror that makes the sequence funny (or not, depending on your tolerance for chaotic vulgarity). In general, LaBute doesn't have a natural gift for the kind of freewheeling, slightly crass comedy this needs to be. To his credit, he tries to prevent the humor from becoming too broad; even the movie's more slapstick moments are handled with a dash of elegance. But his decorum too often comes off as reticence, and it tugs at the story's forward motion. The movie's rhythms are stop-and-start and touch-and-go, and they ought to be smoother.

But it's the spirit of LaBute's picture that makes it enjoyable, and also what sets it apart from Frank Oz's somewhat snoozy 2007 original. (It does follow the basic plot of the original quite closely; both versions were written by Dean Craig.) And if the movie sometimes flirts a little too dangerously with cheap homophobic laughs, by the end LaBute and his cast pull it back into the safety zone -- the ultimate vibe is one of inclusiveness. Chris Rock plays Aaron, an aspiring (and, it's strongly suggested, lousy) novelist who's been entrusted with arranging his father's funeral, which is to be held in the family's stately, gorgeously appointed home. (It's never made clear what dad's line of work was, but he comes from a family of well-educated, well-heeled professionals.) Aaron's troubles begin early on when the casket, containing what's supposed to be his father's body, arrives at the house. He looks inside and assures the bereavement professional that there must be some mistake: "You can't just mess up my order!" After some back-and-forth folderol, it's revealed that the casket does, in fact, contain some random Asian guy.

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