There’s a universality and timelessness to losing a loved one and the ritual of grief, which is why the idea of transferring the concept of this droll British comedy of manners into an African-American family situation must seemed so appealing.
As a dutiful son, Aaron (Chris Rock) has organized his father’s funeral in Southern California with no help from his successful novelist older brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), the prodigal son who flies in from New York to attend the services, making it clear that he has no intention of sharing expenses. Their alienation and the delivery of the wrong corpse is eclipsed when a blackmailing stranger, Frank (diminutive Peter Dinklage, who played the same role in the original), reveals that he was the secret gay lover of the deceased and threatens to show the weeping widow, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), tawdry compromising photos unless the family pays him $300,000. In the meantime, Cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana) is dodging an infatuated ex (Luke Wilson) while coping with the antics of her fiancé Oscar (James Marsden) who has unwittingly ingested acid and is perched, naked, on the roof in the midst of a full-scale hallucinogenic trip.
Within the ensemble, James Marsden is most memorable, garnering the most laughs. Chris Rock fails to elicit sympathy for beleaguered straight-man Aaron, while Martin Lawrence repeats a familiarly suave, insensitive characterization. And Danny Glover casts a pall as a foul-mouthed Uncle Russell who suffers from a gross gastric disorder.
Credited to the same screenwriter, Dean Craig, it’s directed by misanthropic Neil LaBute, whose “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors” had a misogynistic edge of sophistication that’s missing here. Instead, the hollow humor, such as it is, is coarsely sexual, crudely scatological slapstick. In addition, the strained heavy-handedness with which the homosexual angle is handled seems smarmy. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Death at a Funeral” is a frantic 5. Do yourself a favor: rent the same-titled 2007 farce directed by the late Frank Oz and you’ll see the difference.