Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

2018 #44
Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2007)

The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

3 out of 5

Death at a Funeral
(2010)

2018 #46
Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2010)

Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

I guess he's showing him the screenplay

There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake. This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

2 out of 5

The Informant! (2009)

2015 #133
Steven Soderbergh | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

The InformantMatt Damon turns whistleblower (or does he?) in this amusing romp based on a true story of complicated corporate fraud.

Director Steven Soderbergh is clearly having fun: despite the ’90s setting, the aesthetics harken back to the ’70s and its political exposé movies; while Marvin Hamlisch’s fun score references Bond during mundane stuff but offers tunes you’d expect from a farce during undercover FBI business.

If you want to follow the ins and outs you have to pay attention, but the main thrust is conveyed in the flow. Besides, such specifics barely matter to the farcical fun Soderbergh largely achieves.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

2014 #112
David O. Russell | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Flirting with DisasterDavid O. Russell’s second feature sees adoptee Ben Stiller go on a kerazee road trip to find his birth parents, accompanied by dissatisfied wife Patricia Arquette and kooky adoption agency psychologist Téa Leoni, along the way bumping into Arquette’s high school crush (Josh Brolin) and his husband (Richard Jenkins). Cue an almost-PG-13 sex comedy told among sketch-like encounters with quirky people who turn out to not be Stiller’s folks.

Despite a bitty structure, it’s a pretty amusing farce, with a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Now merely a footnote in the filmographies of everyone involved, it deserves a degree of rediscovery.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Clockwise (1986)

2008 #76
Christopher Morahan | 92 mins | DVD | PG / PG

ClockwiseClockwise, so I’m told, was written after John Cleese (who, I should point out, isn’t credited as the writer) attended Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting seminar. What this means for your average viewer is that Clockwise is expertly constructed. More importantly, it’s also very funny.

The first 15 minutes are a little dubious, but it soon becomes apparent that some of McKee’s principles are being followed (if you’re aware of them, of course) as this opening serves to establish the everyday life of Cleese’s character, headmaster Brian Stimpson. The point of this soon becomes apparent: when everything goes to hell over the next hour-and-a-quarter, the viewer can fully appreciate the impact on Stimpson’s existence. And all go wrong it does, in a manner that’s rather reminiscent of Fawlty Towers — not in the sense that Cleese is repeating himself, but rather that you could replace Stimpson with Basil Fawlty and merrily carry on along much the same path; though, I hasten to add (to this over-punctuated sentence) that Stimpson is not a clone of Fawlty, but he is prone to ending up in similar accident-and-misunderstanding-based farcical situations.

I imagine that Clockwise is less well known than it deserves because it is so very British. The humour — largely based around issues of punctuality, politeness, and social custom — is particularly British, as are the countryside settings and the finale set at a public school conference. And, in the first instance, everything goes so spectacularly wrong thanks to our wonderful language’s multiple meanings for the word “right”. From this point Cleese & co escalate the hopelessness of the situation beautifully (and very much in keeping with McKee’s ideas of good structure), gradually crafting more absurd events and dragging in more and more characters, most of whom come together in that finale. This final section perhaps goes on too long, with a rather inconclusive ending, and it lays on the anti-public school gags with a trowel — though that suits me just fine.

Some have argued that Clockwise is more like a series of sketches than a cohesive whole, but all the independent scenes are connected by a common goal, meaning very few (if any) feel genuinely out of place or inelegantly shoved in. The calm pauses between the comic scenes also allow it to remain hilariously funny so consistently — an all-out assault of comedy, no matter how good, can become rather wearing. Again, this ebb-and-flow is something the filmmakers may well have picked up from McKee.

While you could probably use Clockwise as a mini masterclass in applying some of Robert McKee’s structural principles, that’s thankfully not the be-all of it. Very funny once it gets going, this is one that fans of Fawlty Towers will likely especially enjoy — and, really, who with a sense of humour isn’t a Fawlty Towers fan?

4 out of 5