April 29, 2010

Black Comedy vs. Black Comedy

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There seems to be a consensus among intellectuals that British humor is somehow more sophisticated and subtle than American humor, making it better. Do pass the brie.In all seriousness, debates about the comparative humorous success of the television series The Office in its U.K. and U.S. incarnations and the high art of Eddie Izzard vs. the nadir of human performance that is Dane Cook do present an anthropological insight into what cultures find humorous. The British nerve is struck by the notion of impropriety. Thus, absurdity and non sequitur are hilarious. Case in point: Monty Python. American nerves are struck by anything counter-puritanical, i.e. scatology or vulgarity. Hence, sex, poop and pee jokes. They’re also struck by humor about race, which is a bigger reality for Americans than the British for the most part. Case in point: Mel Brooks. Death at a Funeral bridges this gap wonderfully, maintaining the intent of an original British idea while injecting a healthy dose of what Americans find hilarious. However, to compare this film to the 2007 Frank Oz-directed one that is its namesake would do all involved an injustice. This version is directed by Neil LaBute (Lakeview Terrace, Nurse Betty), not a director known for taking the easy way out with movies and messages. More on all that later.Comedian Chris Rock plays Aaron, a middle-aged tax accountant who is also an aspiring writer. He lives in a world populated by multi-dimensional characters, like his wife Michelle (Regina Hall, fresh as a spring chicken and free from Scary Movie hell) who loves and supports him … and is under immense pressure to conceive a baby, because she’s got getting any younger. It doesn’t help that Aaron’s mother Cynthia (Loretta Devine, Crash), is passive-aggressively pressuring Michelle so she can witness a grandchild before she passes, and simultaneously loves Aaron’s younger brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence, Big Momma’s House) so much more. Ryan’s also a successful, published writer, although the titles of his books sound like bad soft-core. Oh, the dad’s dead. Hence the funeral. Hence the estranged brothers are in the same house trying to reconcile and pull together some semblance of a ceremony. Yeah, hence! And the ridiculous cast of supporting characters arrives in various manners, family and friends, all dysfunctional, some with history, some with secrets, all with the intention of forcing hilarity on screen in a scenario that should be frightfully serious. That’s the British comedy peeking through. People acting out depraved and uncouth acts when all they want to do is maintain composure. Try maintaining composure while diarrhea sprays everywhere. Try it. More on all that later.The supporting cast include cousins Elaine and Jeff (Zoe Saldana, on fire after Avatar and The Losers … and smokin’ too … oh, and Columbus Short plays the guy). Elaine is dating Oscar (James Marsden, Enchanted, X-Men), who has taken what he thought was Valium but was one of Jeff’s experimental Woodstock party pills.Elaine’s dad is Duncan, the deceased’s brother (Ron Glass, Shepherd Book from TV’s Firefly), who doesn’t approve of Oscar, preferring Derek (Luke Wilson, always dryly funny), who has one-sided history with Elaine, and creepily won’t let go. He shows up with Norman (Tracy Morgan, TV’s 30 Rock), who … actually, we never find out how he’s related to anyone. All we know is that bringing geriatric, wheelchair-bound Uncle Russell (the legendary Danny Glover, always a grand addition) is his job, and Uncle Russell swears like Richard Pryor after having his legs sawed off and wields his cane like a drunk Jedi. Aaron has to keep this freak carnival contained, and despite being wealthy and somewhat close, this extended family is wack and on the attack. It doesn’t help that a vertically-challenged gentleman with a mysterious wistfulness (played by the excellent Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent, Elf ) arrives wanting to speak with Aaron, perhaps with a new history about the deceased. Perhaps with extortion in mind.The trailers (the recent nature of the original film, only three years old … it’s like the The Hulk debacle all over again) ruined this film, revealing some of the funny lines. Only the R-rating allows the movie to retain the surprise of some of the awkward situations involving flying shit and Cyclops tripping balls beyond all measure of containment. The ending is suitably dark, maintaining the irony expected of a film with Anglican roots. The racial humor is limited, few act in stereotypes, the profanity is prevalent but somehow not as distracting as it is in a Kevin Smith film. The reverend is played by veteran Keith David (The Thing, Barbershop, The Princess and the Frog) with all the sleaze required. Jealousy, desire, awkward tension, the whole debacle. Maybe even a little murder. Hence the title. Yeah, hence.Rock is a brilliant and edgy comedian. He’s a middling actor. Having him play the straight man is frustrating, but he holds it together well, allowing Hall and Lawrence to showcase decent dramatic chops and for Marsden, Saldana and Glover to be hilarious. Glass and Dinklage are sweetly menacing. Devine is cruelly biting. The supporting act steals, and thus saves, the movie.It’s not great art, but it works as escapist comedy. There’s impropriety galore, and vulgarity aplenty. The eulogy fails, but the message succeeds. A funeral is more than a funeral, just as a wedding is more than a wedding. It signals both an end and a beginning. It triggers memories and requires sacrifice and compassion to succeed as an event, and despite that, when the guests, imperfect as they are, fall through (or all over each other), the power of what the event represents and who it honors triumphs over all. Which makes one wonder why we stage such elaborate rituals, hinging on perfection, in the first place.And the film is funny, sometimes lightly, sometimes darkly. And the ending is a treat for the uninitiated.Also of note is how the movie scored and showcased a huge number of black actors on Hollywood’s A-list. The corpse even looked like Billy Dee Williams.

3 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir