4/10
In a Word, Unnecessary
27 April 2010
'Unnecessary' is probably the best single word description of Neil LaBute's "Death at a Funeral." I mean, there's really no precedent for the release of a same-language remake a paltry two and a half years after its original, and yet the guest list arrives for this new "Funeral" with almost as fast a turnaround as a Hollywood sequel. Hell, Chris Nolan hibernated on his second "Batman" film longer.

Nevertheless, the reality is that the decidedly Afro-American-friendly version of the dysfunctional family comedy (notable only because it really is the later film's sole distinguishing feature), is now in theaters, leaving anyone who remembers the Frank Oz original to ponder why.

LaBute and star Chris Rock, who also served as a producer on the film, cheekily 'adapt' U.K. writer Dean Craig's screenplay by peppering it with hip-pop pop-culture nods to Usher and R. Kelly, and leaving the rest, in essence, unchanged. On one hand, I appreciate the sentiment in that it doesn't presume to outdo its progenitor, but that's its problem as a standalone piece: it's either identical or inferior in every conceivable way. As such, the majority of its first-time audience will probably appreciate the comedic build-up having not been spoiled on the gags, and that's fine for right now, but it poses a potential dilemma, say, ten years down the road.

When film buffs and historians look back on "Death at a Funeral" (which they honestly have little reason to), the choice between the two versions will be obvious. Plus, they'll have no idea who "Usher" is.

Likewise, even today I'd recommend a rental of the 2007 film over a ticket to its 2010 counterpart, because, well, the original is the original, and for all its faithfulness, the remake actually accentuates what's lost in translation. The pop-culture one-liners clash with the characters on the page, and leave them feeling half-formed and sloppy on the screen—Are we watching Chris Rock do what makes Chris Rock hilarious, or are we seeing him play a repressed, introverted protagonist? The answer, messily, is both.

On that level, there's a creative integrity to the original performances that is impossible in LaBute's version. Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Tracey Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Peter Dinklage, Luke Wilson, and others comprise an undeniably talented cast that does an admirable job performing characters that were written as upper-crust Englishmen, but watching Rock sulk his way through the film makes it abundantly clear that they're not being themselves.

There's also the not-so-insignificant matter of LaBute's bland artisanship. In the past, he's been responsible for equally lifeless big-screen adaptations of his own stage plays, and a spectacularly poorly-received remake of "The Wicker Man"—It begs the question, why was he asked and trusted to shepherd this project? There's no single performance in the film that feels particularly informed by his hand, and LaBute fails to bring a single funny idea to the table. In adhering so rigidly to "Funeral" prime, his remake is marked by an absence of directorial and comedic vision.

I have no qualms with anyone who enjoyed "Death at a Funeral" for the first time via the LaBute/Rock version. A lot of what made the British comedy memorable has survived, and even with a jaded precognition of the gags, I mined a couple laughs. However, the fatal flaw of the 2010 adaptation is that the 2007 version exists. It's not like it's antiquated or anything; it's three years old.

Anyone with an open mind can still appreciate the original "Death at a Funeral," and its immediate availability for less than the cost of a night at the movies makes the 2010 remake quintessentially one thing—Unnecessary.
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