So a man who spent a good portion of his career with his hand up the nether regions of puppets wants to attempt to direct a PBSish British farce? Turns out the mixture works, since all that seems to be missing from this stab at cartwheeling wit is Judi Dench and breaks for a pledge drive.Now with his father dead, Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) is left to take care of the funeral arrangements. Gathering friends and family for a polite goodbye, all hell breaks loose when one of the guests (Alan Tudyk) accidentally drops acid, Daniel’s successful writer brother refuses to pay his half of the bills, and an unexpected blackmailer (Peter Dinklage) crashes the event. With the festivities severely out of control, it takes all the patience Daniel can muster to lend his father some sense of dignity at his own funeral.
“Death at a Funeral” has a punch-drunk quality to it that helps ease the overt execution. Director Frank Oz hasn’t truly explored this pitch of silly in nearly 20 years, perhaps last captured in his 1988 cult hit “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” It’s a return to form for Oz and his macabre sense of humor, or any sense of humor for that matter, since his last picture was the dreary 2004 misfire “The Stepford Wives.”
It’s wonderful to see Oz flexing his humor muscles again. “Funeral” shows a director clearly loving an opportunity to kick back with something silly and blatantly farcical for a change. Oz keeps the film swift and appealing, even when the script doesn’t offer up the belly laughs. Still, it’s a consistently engaging comedy, always playful and never afraid to head into some uncomfortable areas of scatological comedy and other batches of R-rated scraps that will surely send more unprepared audience members into whooping fits.
“Funeral” gently snowballs into a more forceful engagement once the characters are established and the actors loosen up. After about 30 minutes, the slapstick starts to emerge and the film grows a sudden personality; Oz takes the reigns and leads the screenplay where it needs to go for ultimate effect. “Wives” was a bloated, made-by-committee film; “Funeral” is a low-budget character-based comedy, and it feels freeing. Parading around nude acid trips (a comedic device Oz squeezes the most mileage from), accidental murders, and a swell layering of creamy black comedy frosting, “Funeral” might not score a laugh bull’s eye every time, but it never ceases to entertain and, at times, shock.There’s a long history of British comedy in the same vein as “Death at a Funeral,” and I could see the film pleasing those more devoted to the fine art of stiff-upper-lip astonishment and panic. For me, I’m just thrilled Oz is recharging his directorial mojo, making a funny movie that contains some actual funny.