Sticking a pin into overstuffed pomposity is something of a staple of British comedy: Whether it's the gentle anti-authoritarian tweaking of the old Ealing comedies, Mr. Bean making a slapstick disaster out of meeting the Queen, or the delicious agony of John Cleese trying to maintain his dignity when he's discovered naked in A Fish Called Wanda, the disruption of stiff-upper-lip status quo is the sort of thing the Brits do best.
So you'd be forgiven for thinking that Death at a Funeral — a British farce that disrupts that most solemn of occasions — would be rife with comic possibilities. Burials are often hotbeds of family resentments and unfulfilled emotions staged by people trying to keep a brave face for the world. The ceremonies surrounding death have provided fodder for comedy classics as disparate as The Funeral (from Tampopo director Juzo Itami) and The Loved One (a movie where cameos from Tab Hunter and Liberace were of a piece with the general air of lunacy).
Alas, this new film from director Frank Oz is a stiff. Despite a final half hour that's full of laughs, Death takes so long getting its farce gears moving that the audience becomes comatose with anticipation of mirth that is too late in coming.
The principal — and least interesting — storyline concerns Daniel (Matthew Macfayden), whose wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) hopes that, with the death of Daniel's father, the two of them will be able to move out of his parents' house and into a flat of their own. Those plans are complicated by the arrival of Daniel's brother Robert (Rupert Graves, whose face shows all 20 of the years that have passed since he starred in Maurice), a world-renowned novelist who's not as well-off as he appears.
Further complicating matters is Peter (Peter Dinklage), a surprise guest at the funeral. Peter informs Daniel that he and the deceased were gay lovers, and that if Daniel doesn't fork over 15,000 pounds, Peter will tell all to everyone at the funeral. After an aborted payoff attempt, Daniel and Robert attempt to subdue Peter, first by physical force and then by slipping him what they think are Valiums. What's actually in the Valium bottle, however, are pills that are a combination of LSD, ketamine, and various other hallucinogens.
It's the drug mix-up that, surprisingly, provides Death at a Funeral with its funniest moments, thanks to Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Knocked Up) as a high-strung man who accidentally ingests them. Already nervous about having to deal with his girlfriend's stentorian father at the funeral, Tudyk's Simon winds up making nonsense conversation and staring into bushes before eventually taking off all of his clothes and climbing onto the roof.
Tudyk's nude scenes remind us once again that the penis has been exiled from mainstream American cinema. (Not counting The Simpsons Movie, of course.) What makes his nudity jarring, however, is the ridiculously elaborate camera angles and editing that have to take place to prevent his meat-and-veg from appearing on the screen. It's an elaborately choreographed joke when a character's nudity is strategically hidden from the camera by a series of objects in the Austin Powers movies, but when Tudyk's junk remains invisible in an organic context, it makes the audience focus on his genitals much more than they would if the director weren't so afraid of them. Had the film been made in the tradition of classic Brit comedies — and really, why is a Hollywood filmmaker like Frank Oz directing such an exceedingly British film? — we would have all gotten a quick flash and been done with it.