Here is a concept: take a mildly successful British comedy and produce an American remake with a completely different cast save for one key character. You end up with more or less the same story, but with different actors adding their own persona to the material. Why not? The same thing is done with theatre all the time, so it can work just as well with movies.
“Death at a Funeral” was first a 2007 British film directed by Frank Oz about a funeral where things go spectacularly wrong. The undertaker delivers the wrong body, much to the anger of Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), the son of the deceased. His wife is pressuring him to come up with money for a house, but he is short on cash after the cost of the funeral. His brother Robert (Rupert Graves) arrives from New York where he is a published author, but says he does not have the money to pay for his half of the funeral costs. Simon (Alan Tudyk) who wishes to marry his girlfriend Martha (Daisy Donovan) is nervous about running into her dad at the funeral. To calm him down, she gives him some Valium she found at her brother’s house; only it is not Valium but a powerful hallucinogenic.
As if that was not enough, Peter Dinklage plays a mysterious guest with a surprising revelation about Daniel’s father. Without giving too much away, he has photos of his relationship with the deceased and threatens to show them to everyone if he does not receive a large sum of money.
Before the body will be put to rest, the casket will be dropped, Simon will strip naked and sit on the roof and Dinklage will be tied up and gagged. All funny stuff, but the tone in this version is somewhat dry. Once the cake hits the fan, or the casket hits the floor, the movie hits its stride but it feels like it takes a while to get there.
For my taste, I found the 2010 American version by Neil LaBute to be funnier. Right from the start there is more creativity. Instead of just having the undertaker bring the wrong body, he brings the body of an Asian man. It might have been an understandable mistake if it was the funeral of an Asian family, but this is a funeral featuring an almost all black cast. “You got Jackie Chan in there!” says a very irritated Chris Rock as Aaron, the son of the deceased.
Just like in the British version, he has to deal with a drugged-out guest (James Marsden), a money-pinching successful brother (Martin Lawrence) and a blackmailing Peter Dinklage. But whereas the wife in the British version was putting pressure on David to buy a house, the wife in this version (Regina King) is also pressuring Aaron to conceive with her, even when there is a dead body in the living room. She goes so far as removing her panties to entice him, but he is repulsed by her lack of decorum instead.
Both films also feature a foul-mouthed uncle in a wheelchair, but in the U.S version the casting of Danny Glover as the uncle is an inspired choice. Glover has played tough cops, villains and the American president, but this has to be a first for him. Of course he does say his signature line from “Lethal Weapon” (I am getting too old for this shit) but also such gems as “lets just burn him and get it over with.”
Then there is the addition of Tracy Morgan, who will add energy to any situation. In addition to having to endure grumpy Danny Glover, Morgan spends much of the movie worrying about a rash on his hand. In typical Morgan form, he goes from full-on hypochondriac to thinking the rash will turn him into the Incredible Hulk.
Both versions of “Death at a Funeral” feature genuinely funny gags and situations in one of the least funny situations known to man, the funeral of a father. Yet for my taste, the cast of the American version elevate the material.
(Both versions of “Death at a Funeral” are available on DVD and are streaming on Netflix.)