Hollywood's got a thing for cribbing from the Brits. Anything that's done across the pond, studio suits figure they can do them one better: Think The Italian Job and Day of the Jackal on film; on TV think The Office, All In The Family, Trading Spaces, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Dancing With The Stars, American Idol ….. Hell, even Sanford and Son was a remake. (Yes, really.)
And now, because apparently there's no better idea than the one that's already been done, we have opening at a multiplex near you: Death at a Funeral, directed by Neil LaBute (In The Company Of Men) and starring Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. Except that instead of an over-the-top farce sending up stiff, upper-class Brits with an attitude problem, this is an over-the-top farce sending up stiff, upper-class black folks with an attitude problem.
Same concept, same plot, same blackmailing gay dwarf.
Good thing the 2010 version of Death At A Funeral remake-let's call it Death 2.0-is side splittingly, gasping-to- catch-your-breath-while-wiping-tears-from-your-face funny. Most of the time. It's also uneven, sophomoric and offensive-if, that is, you don't like humor on the scatological side, served with an extra helping of gratuitous nudity.
Like Death 1.0, Death 2.0 opens on the day of a funeral. Aaron (Chris Rock) is standing guard at his family's Los Angeles mansion, watching mournfully as the funeral home delivers a casket. He's an accountant who really wants to be a writer, meanwhile he and his wife (Regina Hall) have been living at home with mom (Loretta Devine) and dad (the guy in the casket) for years, scrimping and saving 'til they can get a place of their own. Except that now there is a funeral, and people are coming, bringing with them all sorts of baggage, as funerals are wont to do.
Aaron's baggage comes in the form of his slightly younger and way more successful brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence). Aaron's got an unpublished novel that he's too scared to let anyone see, but Ryan, on the other hand, has a string of mega bestsellers to his name, which he delights in rubbing in Aaron's face. Ryan enjoys living large, so much so that he booked two first-class tickets for the trip in. Heaven forbid that he be forced to engage in small talk with the little people..
Also giving Aaron trouble is his wife (Regina Hall), who's dying to make a baby — today — and his mother (Loretta Devine), who looks down on said wife because she's yet to produce an heir. ("You can't understand death until you've given birth.") Other agents of family drama include a pharmacology student/cousin who likes to play with his homework; the nervous fiancé of the pharmacologist's sister and the aforementioned gay, blackmailing dwarf who had a … uh… relationship with the deceased. Adding extra agita is Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), an exceedingly grumpy old man with a fondness for beating family members upside the head with his cane.
Part of what made the original Death At A Funeral work so well was the juxtaposition of its plebian potty humor with its snootily aristocratic characters. Death 2.0 doesn't have that class tension to play against. Its characters are clearly black bourgies, but it doesn't take advantage of the easy humor that lies in lampooning the Jack & Jill set. Instead, it relies solely on physical humor and the built-in comedic capital of its stars. You expect Chris Rock to be funny, so you laugh.
The thing is, Rock's actually the film's weakest element. He's cast as the straight man here, and Rock should never, ever, ever play the straight man. He's a comic, not an actor, and he's at his best when he is let loose to riff off of the world's outrages. In Death 2.0, he's plodding and mournful. Only here and there do we see sparks of what makes him such a comic genius.
Martin doesn't fare much better-perhaps they should have switched roles? But the rest of the cast — Zoe Saldana, Luke Wilson, James Marsden, Keith David, Ron Glass, Peter Dinklage and Tracy Morgan — acquit themselves well. Morgan and Marsden are by far the standouts here as Norman, the hypochondriac who's stuck with foul-mouthed Uncle Russell and Oscar, the besotted fiancée who finds trouble on the other side of a Valium bottle. Marsden, whom you may remember as Cyclops from X-Men franchise, embraces the film's physical humor with open-armed gusto. And after watching him warble "Amazing Grace," I won't be able to hear that at a funeral again and keep a straight face.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.