It’s a funny thing about remakes. A funny thing that we’ve discussed thousands of times in the past and are doomed to discuss thousands of times in the future as well. If you have a good reason — a driving force more noble than simple financial gain or more interesting than a lack of creativity — and you combine that reason with a bit of purpose, it is possible to make a remake that not only honors its original, it becomes a worthwhile extension of its original. The horror genre does this pretty well. The genre of comedy, not so much. However, when Neil LaBute and Screen Gems decided to remake the 2007 Frank Oz comedy Death at a Funeral, they did so with that good reason (to translate the story to a uniquely different audience) and did it with purpose. And much to our surprise, they’ve gone from a seemingly disastrous idea to a worthwhile extension of the original film. They’ve proved again that you can remake a film well. Who knew?
The most points are gained through holding tight to the original story. That is, in fact, what made the original Death at a Funeral so much fun. It is a sad story of a man who must deal with the death of his father while his insane family tries to keep things together. A simple story, filled with absurdity and dark, dark humor. That has all been carried over, as LaBute and co. were working from the same Dean Craig script on this film. This time it’s Chris Rock in the role of Aaron, the eldest son just trying to hold it together. Martin Lawrence plays his absentee brother, the successful writer with an attitude problem. Danny Glover plays the crazy old uncle, who beats up on Aaron’s chubby (and loud-mouthed) friend Norman, played by Tracey Morgan. And their cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana), whose inadvertently drugged boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden) begins to lose his mind as the funeral day wears on. Oh, and Peter Dinklage is back to play the role of the father’s secret lover, a role played in the 2007 film by Peter Dinklage. That’s a nice touch.
Again Dinklage is insanely brilliant as he attempts to extort money from the two brothers, and again we are feeling for the main character the entire time, allowing ourselves to be connected to his plight in between bouts of laughter. And again, the entire show is stolen by a naked guy on the roof. Where Alan Tudyk once broke audiences apart with silliness, James Marsden has stepped in to shine. And shine he does.
Of course, there are some subtle differences. This is where the new Death at a Funeral stretches its legs a bit. There are the obvious cultural differences between making a movie about a British family in chaos and a middle class African American family living in Los Angeles. There are more jokes about R. Kelly and what loving Dreamgirls says about a man, but for the most part the details are still there. And most importantly, it works. The film gets laughs, just as its predecessor did in ’07. It is a funny movie that will introduce this wonderfully dark story to a brand new audience, and you can’t fault it for that.
The only problems that occur are a bit of flatness, mostly in the performances of Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. A lack of brotherly chemistry is to blame, and it’s hard to believe that these two guys are related, no matter how hard they’ve tried. That is one element that is lost in translation. One thing that’s not lost is James Marsden’s performance. He is as outrageous, yet sweet, echoing perfectly the performance of Alan Tudyk in the original. When the laughs get loudest, he’s usually to blame.
The unfortunate part is that anyone who has seen (and most likely enjoyed) the original is already ruined. You’ve seen most of the shocking humor, you know where the movie ultimately ends and you’re very familiar with the characters. This film offers nothing new to the repeat audience. Though, that is clearly not its game. Its game is to take a story that works for one audience and hand it over to a new one. And in doing that, it succeeds.
The Upside: By holding tight to the story of the original, it delivers laughs and is held up on the shoulders of a great performance from James Marsden.
The Downside: Some of the key performances and chemistry are flat, and the film offers nothing new to anyone who has seen the Frank Oz-directed original.