Death at a Funeral
The difference between British and American comedies is not so much a matter of content as it is a matter of delivery. American comedy tends to hit the audience over the head with the punchline; the Brits let the jokes fly more subtly and with little fanfare—forcing the audience to keep up. American comedies, like this summer's Adam Sandler vehicle, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, typically create screwball situations and revel in crass buffoonery for its own sake. British comedies can be equally sophomoric and crude, but there is usually some larger satirical purpose or cultural commentary going on.
Such is the case with Death at a Funeral, a film that turns one of culture's most sacred ceremonies into a circus of comedic insanity and fun British colloquialisms ("Art you mental?" is my favorite). It is just as bawdy and juvenile as any American comedy, yes; but it is also smart, subtle, and heartfelt—and this makes all the difference.
Funeral opens with an animated titles sequence that follows a cartoon hearse as it travels a winding path over a roadmap. When the hearse finally reaches its destination (a lovely country manor somewhere in rural Britain), Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) solemnly watches as the casket of his dead father is unloaded and brought into the house where it will sit for a quiet family funeral. When the casket is opened, however, it turns out the wrong body has been brought! And so begins the barrage of mishaps, calamities, and unfortunate events that will make this simple, dignified occasion anything but.
Eventually the correct casket is delivered, and soon the house is invaded by dozens of guests, including family, friends, and a mysterious dwarf (Peter Dinklage) with an illicit secret. The largely British cast (led by British director Frank Oz, whose last film was 2004's The Stepford Wives) works wonderfully as an ensemble, enlivening a diverse set of characters perfect for a film that revels in the juxtaposition of the demure (the matriarch of the family, played by Jane Asher) and the ridiculous (like "Uncle Alfie," the elderly potty-mouth in a wheelchair, played with great fun by Peter Vaughn).
Stealing the film, however, is a non-Brit actor—Alan Tudyk (Knocked Up), who plays Simon, the hapless boyfriend of Martha (Daisy Donovan), niece of the deceased. On the way to the funeral they stop to pick up Martha's stoner brother Troy, who has mislabeled bottles of hallucinogenic pills scattered around his flat. A nervous Simon opens a "Valium" bottle and takes a pill that turns out to be something altogether more whimsical than Valium. Hence Simon enters a trippy wonderland that won't subside for eight hours. And of course, when acid trips meet decorous English funerals, hilarity is bound to ensue.
Like the Simon/drug trip storyline, each of the main characters is involved in one or more subplots that (of course) manage to intertwine by the film's climax, which is truly hysterical (I've never been in a theater when so many people were screaming in laughter for five minutes straight). The structure of the movie feels almost like a Robert Altman film, with its "day in the life" observational feel. There are also issues of class tension, family dynamics, life, death, and sex that make this "world in a microcosm" film quite similar to something Altman would make.