Death at a Funeral is one of the funniest films I've seen this century, as surprising, consistent and laugh-out-loud hilarious as any movie in the past 10 years.
The original 2007 version, that is -- the one directed by Frank Oz, with a British cast.
The new remake of Death at a Funeral, the one with Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and a who's who of African-American actors - well, that's another story. I mean, it's the same story - practically scene for scene. And it's funny - with a handful of big laughs. But it's not nearly as funny as the original.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many millions more people will be drawn to this broad, raucous version of Dean Craig's script (directed, incongruously enough, by misanthropic playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute) than ever saw Oz's version, which barely cracked the arthouse market. And they'll laugh hard at surefire jokes involving hallucinogenic drugs, dead bodies, public nudity and poop.
But Labute's Death is the equivalent of one of those Hollywood translations of a Francis Veber farce from the 1980s and 1990s. Veber would craft a weightless French comedy starring, say Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard - and then Hollywood would translate into a ham-handed lump starring, say, Nick Nolte and Martin Short.
Yes, Labute's Death at a Funeral is virtually a photocopy, in terms of the story it tells and the comedy beats it hits. Yet everything in this version is coarser and more obvious, aimed at a lowest-common-denominator audience.
What made the first film funny - aside from an imaginative and jam-packed plot - was the contrast between the repressed British characters and the wildly inappropriate things they were forced to do. These characters were embarrassed at the mere idea of being embarrassed, which added a layer of humor that this version lacks. Thus, the British characters' fear of being discovered and their horror at having to commit various acts seemed to multiply geometrically; the more outlandish the plot got, the more laughs there were.
But while the action of this comedy is still outrageous, there's very little distance between who the characters are at the beginning of the film and who they are forced to become under extraordinary circumstances.