Has Neil LaBute given up on movies? It sure looks that way – how else to explain how the former indie darling behind “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors” has spent the past few years churning out for-hire hackwork like “Lakeview Terrace” and the “Wicker Man” remake? And while LaBute continues a prolific career as a playwright, he hasn’t delivered a screenplay since 2003’s “The Shape of Things” (which, incidentally, was based on his own stage play). Granted, he’s directed other writers’ material before (“Nurse Betty”), but never with such extreme blandness.
The work he turns in for “Death at a Funeral” – a remake of the 2007 British farce, tweaked to fit American stars Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan – is so tone deaf, it could’ve been handled by any anonymous director. You have to look hard for his trademark misogyny and cynicism; yes, the women here are shrews and the men are selfish twits, but that’s more the result of a weak script than any personal flourish.
Indeed, one look at the “Funeral” script is enough to bewilder: of all movies, why remake this one, which wasn’t very good in the first place? And why keep Dean Craig’s original screenplay pretty much intact (to the point where Craig remains credited as the only writer), not counting unnecessary name changes and a few lazily updated jokes about Twitter and R. Kelly?
(For those who came in late: “Funeral” finds a large family gathering to mourn the death of the patriarch; nothing goes as planned and relatives bicker and feud throughout, hell breaking loose to the point where the guy in the coffin may or may not be the only corpse by movie’s end.)
Make no mistake, Craig’s script is downright awful. Punchlines are telegraphed far in advance, broadly sketched characters scramble through sitcom set-ups and creaky scenarios, the drama underneath the screwball plotting is achingly uninteresting in its wafer thinness. The idea that an American studio (as well as an Indian one – a Bollywood remake, titled “Daddy Cool,” was released last year) would scramble so quickly to recycle this story has thrown me completely for a loop. This script? Really?
It’s an interesting exercise, two movies using the same screenplay; the differences are all in the execution, allowing us to compare Frank Oz’s restrained-and-unfunny with LaBute’s hyperbolic-and-unfunny. LaBute’s film is essentially the original with its volume cranked to eleven. Actors plow through their lines with readings that alternate between stiff and rushed, while LaBute mistakes shrill and fast for sharp and clever.
Consider its cheapest joke, in which a dimwit winds up with his hand stuck in a toilet while it’s in use by a diarrhetic. (Yes, it’s that kind of comedy.) In the original, we get the sight of a smudge of drippy brown goop on the dimwit’s fingertips; in the remake, Tracy Morgan winds up with a handful of the liquefied waste, which he then splatters all over the mirror, the sink, the ceiling, and himself, all while screaming at full volume. It takes a certain talent to make a gawdawful poop joke less funny. Well played, LaBute.
Then there’s James Marsden, who takes over the Alan Tudyk role (“Simon” becomes “Oscar” in the renaming shuffle, for reasons that elude me) as a hapless boyfriend who – get this! – accidentally drops acid and spends the movie tripping out in front of his girlfriend’s increasingly shocked and embarrassed family. Marsden tries everything to squeeze a laugh, from goofy faces to weird voices to, of course, numerous butt shots, the result of a freak out that leaves him sweaty and naked on the roof. Male nudity is hilarious, of this the movie is certain, especially when the camera keeps tricking us into thinking we’re about to get a big screen close-up of his unclothed man-bits.
There’s definitely a way to do all of this in a way that generates laughs, but if so, LaBute has not discovered it. Instead, he tosses us a large helping of gay panic, as an unlucky side character gets a face full of naked crotch, har har. Craig’s screenplay is loaded with “comical” homophobia, with a subplot involving a stranger (Peter Dinklage, inexplicably reprising his role from the original) who reveals himself to be the deceased’s lover; LaBute underlines every gay joke in bold ink, asking us to cringe at the thought of oral sex, crossdressing, guys who watch “Dreamgirls,” and statues of naked Greek wrestlers. (No surprise: there’s also yet another face-to-crotch sight gag payoff to all this.)
The rest is a scattershot mess of half-baked melodrama, squeezed into the corners whenever the yuks run dry. We get filler about a bitchy mother demanding grandchildren, brothers failing to see eye to eye, a family friend yearning to reconnect with his ex, a daughter anxious to get her dad to accept her boyfriend, etc. Each plotline wraps up with a sort of misguided sincerity that clashes with the oversized farce that fills the rest of the picture. Did Craig really think the best way to wrap up a dark comedy filled with drugs, blackmail, and possible murder was with a handful of shiny happy speeches?
Oh, and Danny Glover shows up, just so audience members can whisper to their dates about how, hey, that’s Danny Glover! Naturally, he mumbles something about being “too old for this shit.” You’re not the only one, Danny.