Director Frank Oz says it best. On being given this script, “I just laughed out loud. And, I was touched by the story.” For myself, from the film’s opening frame, I was chuckling, laughing, chortling and snickering, before ultimately breaking into side splitting, tears rolling down my face laughter. Similar in the comedic stylings and performances of “Arsenic and Old Lace”, DEATH AT A FUNERAL proves one thing, funerals are funny.
Determined to provide his father with a funeral as dignified in his death as befit him in life, Daniel takes the laboring oar in his family’s time of crisis. Living in his parents’ home with his wife Jane and his mother Sandra, Daniel is the put-upon one. A struggling writer living in the shadow of his successful narcissistic literary brother Robert, Daniel has stayed at the family home, tending to mother, overseeing the grounds, working on his own book (for years and years and years), in essence, a 30-something cooling his heels waiting and whining for his ship to come in. Although she loves her husband, all Jane wants to do is get away from her mother-in-law once and for all. Robert, living the life in New York is the epitome of “champagne taste on a 7-11 Big Gulp budget.” Then there’s Martha, the beloved cousin who only wants to please her father and never moreso than with her fianc Simon who is making his first introduction with the family at the funeral. And what about poor Simon. A solid forthright and upstanding lawyer, he is still nervous as a rubber crutch over meeting the family and particularly Martha’s father Victor. A family that looks to their true friends for support in times of crisis, Daniel calls on his best friend Howard, an idiosyncratic hypochondriacal Nervous Nelly to shore him up for the day. Howard, of course, leans on his friend Justin who is only appearing at the funeral to see his obsession, Martha. Cousin Troy, a chemistry/pharmacology student, earns extra cash by doing his own method of mixology creating designer drugs combining ketamine, mescaline and other hallucinogenics for what he describes as the “ultimate trip.” And then there’s crotchety old Uncle Alfie who reminds me of Dick Van Dyke’s portrayal of the mean old banker in “Mary Poppins.”
As the family and friends begin to arrive, solemnity is the order of the day. Well, at least until Daniel discovers the funeral home brought the wrong body to the viewing and panics. Although he may be more panicked over Robert’s arrival and everyone’s love and admiration for Robert. Pelted with queries every 10 seconds, “Is Robert here yet?” Looking forward to Robert’s eulogy” (although Daniel is the one giving it), Daniel becomes more agitated and exasperated by the second. And adding fuel to his fire is Jane who is harping about moving out of the house now that Father has died. Sell the house, sell some belongings, get some cash and leave.
But, Murphy’s Law also comes into play for many with just the trip to the funeral. Simon and Martha are picking up Troy. Troy, the consummate business man decides to mix business with pleasure and grabs some of his products for sale later in the day. Simon, scared to death and suffering panic attacks at even meeting Troy, looks to Martha for comfort. Martha, so in love with her beloved, realizes the only thing to do to calm him down is to medicate him, so she borrows some of Troy’s pharmaceuticals – the ones marked Valium. But, knowing Troy, is it really Valium? Howard and Justin are forced to transport Uncle Alfie and his wheelchair. And Howard just can’t get beyond his fascination and obsessive paranoia over a slight pigmentation discoloration on his skin and is convinced he is going to die from leprosy or some other equally disgusting fatal demise. But what about poor Howard? The day gets even better for him when he has to carry Uncle Alfie over his shoulders lugging him to the house carrying the wheelchair because of the rocky road. And what’s this? Simon seems to be acting a bit odd. Stumbling, with eyes bugging out, reaction time slooooowed to a crawl, morbid fascination with wallpaper and toilet paper? Uh-oh. Looks like that wasn’t Valium he took. Looks like that was one of Troy’s specialty products.
So, we have no casket. No body. Justin is searching for Martha. Howard obsesses about having some strange disease. Jane wants to move, now. Daniel frets over Robert. Robert obsesses over Robert. All the guests obsess about Robert. Martha is frantic over Simon. Simon hides in the bathroom. Victor wants to meet Simon. Uncle Alfie doesn’t give a flying fart about anything. Howard has the great task of helping Uncle Alfie in the toilet. Simons is, well, Simon is…..you’ve just got to see Simon who by this time is buck naked out on the roof. And as if this dysfunctional chaos isn’t enough, Peter arrives. Peter? Peter, who? Well, let’s just say that with Peter comes photographs, evidence and secret stories that are all so sordid and shocking so as to curl your toes, straighten your hair, turn your face red and have you gasping for air from laughing and crying so hard, that it becomes clear that more than Father needs to be buried today.
Described by director Frank Oz as “being great actors and appropriate”, it took 1 months of auditioning before the cast was in place. Calling on the wealth of British actors, Oz ended up with the creme de la creme of Britain plus one American (and what an American he is).
Probably best known for starring opposite Kiera Knightley as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”, Matthew Macfayden is flawless as Daniel and here, is anything but Mr. Darcy. He gives new meaning to “put upon”. His comedic and physical timing is pitch perfect yet, as is acknowledged by his co-star Andy Nyman, Macfayden’s delivery, and particularly that of the eulogy is telling of how good an actor he is. “That eulogy is a remarkable piece of writing. And Matthew’s performance is extraordinary. To have gone from that level of hysteria to something that is so erudite and kind hearted is a real testament to Dean’s talent as a writer.”
Andy Nyman is a riot as Howard. Fresh off his turn in another of my favorite films, “Severance”, despite Oz’s determination to have him as his Howard, both had to wait through the entire audition process before the producers would allow Nyman to be hired. Probably the best hypochondriacal performance since Jack Lemmon or Tony Randall playing Felix Unger, Nyman is a gem. Unequivocally his most joyous role to date, Nyman was awestruck and “super excited” to work with one of his idols, British veteran Peter Vaughn. “There he is. An 82 years old man. An amazing actor. And he was happy to have his trousers and underpants pulled down again and again and again. Wanted real. Does it real. This is one of my heroes and I’m pulling his pants down.” Rupert Graves is the epitome of snobbish, self-absorbed “fake” class and a perfect complement to Macfayden. The incomparable Peter Dinklage steps up as the mysterious Peter. Exuding innocent believability with a slightly sinister undertone laced with some sweetness, with his appearance, the entire film goes from funny to absolutely hysterical and he is smack dab in the middle providing some unforgettable slapstick moments.
But the scene stealer of the film is Alan Tudyk as Simon. I have seen the complete body of his work, with everything from “A Knight’s Tale” to Pirate Steve in “Dodgeball” to what should have garnered an Emmy nomination for a sobering guest turn as a pedophile in “CSI”. He is amazing. First and foremost, yes ladies, he does his own ass work. And yes, he really is up on a rooftop naked and unsecured. And yes, he did his own rooftop leaps (as well as his own riding in the upcoming “3;10 to Yuma”.) For Tudyk, because he had to simulate a speed induced Simon, “This was a difficult role. Every scene no matter how casual the scene is, you have to be vibrating at a certain level, it was very exhausting. I was playing with my imagination. Tricking myself.” Using sensory investigation he had to continually come up with new ways to show Simon’s high reaction to the world around him – all of which lead to raucous riotous laughter. Also of great concern was the heat and gravel on the roof and the desire to retain a scratch and sunburn free butt.
The highlight of the film is the meticulous definition and clarity with which each of the principles is written. Screenwriter Dean Craig did an outstanding job on the script. Within minutes of being introduced to each character, you know exactly who and what they are. The dialogue is crisp and edgy with rapid-fire hilarity that crystalizes almost every potential “Murphy’s Law” scenario one can imagine and then some. Brilliant!
For those of you unaware, Frank Oz, best known as the voice of Yoda, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and even Miss Piggy, is an accomplished director having helmed one of my faves “Housesitter” as well as Nicole Kidman in “Stepford Wives”, “In & Out” and “Bowfinger.” But with DEATH AT A FUNERAL he hits the pinnacle of his directing career. According to Oz, “The most important thing to me is, is it honest?” Trust me. This is as honest as it gets. Mid and tight shots are fantastic tools by Oz to convey the frenticism and insanity of what’s transpiring while the roof top wide shots really give new meaning to “shout it from the rooftops.” Trying to make the scenes not so claustrophic was one of his greatest challenges. “There were little things that I did that you don’t have to know about that give a sense of movement and air.” The other challenge was to “have every single *ing moment alive.” This film is so alive, that the story, dialogue and exuberant performances of the ensemble are so strong and solid, that the actual scenic visuals fall into the background like white noise.
According to Oz, during the third act where the real farce and hilarity take hold, the actual scenes, and particularly a bathroom scene with Howard and Uncle Alfie, you can’t really do lines. A lot of that was improv, despite being scripted by Craig which Nyman calls “laugh out loud amazing.”
As comical as the film is on screen, so it was off. During one pivotal sequence, Daniel and Robert are looking at a stack of documents trying to assess the situation at hand. According to Oz, he wanted his actors to be “shocked and stupefied” so unbeknownst to the cast or crew, but for his prop guy, “I asked my production designer Michael Howells, who is gay, get me some real strong gay porn. So, what they are looking at, everytime we did a take, we slipped in a new gay porn [photo]. I knew we couldn’t get the reaction otherwise.” Neither Macfayden nor Graves had a clue what was happening so what we see on screen is honest shock and awe. The result is fabulously funny.
Problematic to the shoot was the hilarity of the story and the actors themselves. According to Nyman, “There was nothing other than are we going to get through this scene without laughing.” Oz agrees. “Oh yeah. Oh God. I just saw outakes from the DVD. It was so funny. I could barely stand up at times. It was so hysterical. That’s part of the reason I did the ending credits [of the film] that way. I wanted people to see how much fun we had.”
On seeing the finished product, Andy Nyman, who says “this was just a joyous, joyous time” had one word, “Delight. It felt so warm and human and funny.” For me, DEATH AT A FUNERAL is a perversely absurd, funny, quirky, HILARIOUS comedy. Death can be funnier than life.