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04/16/2010

Stuck between a Rock and forced farce do-over

 
Eccentricity morphs awkwardly in "Death at a Funeral," a recent British farce diluted into American madcap comedy.

I can understand why raucous American comedian Chris Rock was intrigued by the Frank Oz British version.  Emotions run deep at funerals.  Strange things are said and sometimes done when families and friends gather under extreme stress to honor the recently deceased.  

Often, unbridled emotions lead to dark comedy, at least from a distanced eye.

The first "Death at a Funeral" was only marginally successful in 2007.  Compared to the American re-do, however, the original tale of a pint-sized blackmailer who crashes  a family patriarch's funeral and creates havoc amid already erupting chaos looks like a work of genius.

Oddly, exceptional American actor Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") portrays the little guy who stirs up big trouble in both versions.  This time he's Frank, the deceased's "special friend" with incriminating pictures.  In the British "Death at a Funeral," he was Peter, the dead guy's "special friend" with incriminating pictures.

It's important to change things around, I suppose.  Otherwise, film-goers might think, correctly, that director Neil LaBute and screenwriter Dean Craig (who wrote the original) are attempting to charge some movie-goers for the same thing twice.

LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors"), an exceptional writer-director of serious drama that takes dark comic turns, goes slumming here for reasons that escape me.

The two "Funerals" are not entirely the same film, of course.  The first occurred on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  This one, a step-by-step remake without the farcical British tweak, plays out in Pasadena, CA.

Two confrontational brothers serve as the story's pivot point.  Aaron (Rock), the elder brother by a mere nine months, has stayed home and gotten married despite wanting all his life to be a novelist.  Brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence) returns triumphantly from New York, where he has managed to get several novels published.  All trite trash, from what we can decipher from the dialogue.

Rock, who appeared in LaBute's "Nurse Betty", and Lawrence ("Big Momma's House") are talented comedians.  But they aren't funny in this one.  That will and should disappoint their fans.  Both should know better if they intended to get laughs.  They are not part of the madcap clown act in this forced farce.

The laughs -- and there are a few crammed down our throats -- befall Dinklage (whose talents are wasted), Danny Glover (who knows better) and Tracy Morgan ("Cop Out," "30 Rock" on TV), who may not know better, primarily involve involuntarily ingested hallucinogenic drugs and fecal matter flying through the air.

If you're looking for the only real funny business in "Death at a Funeral," don't go out for a popcorn refill with the stuff hits the fans and some of the actors.

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