Black 'Death at a Funeral' doesn't live up to British original

REVIEW - Feel free to check out the newest version, but then make sure to rent the original. And then, leaving the identity politics at the door, ask yourself which one you prefer...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The just released Death at a Funeral, the story of a Californian clan in mourning, is a retread of the Frank Oz-directed 2007 British comedy of the same name where a well-to-do English family comes undone at a funeral service as they face huge secrets and their own unresolved neuroses.

Flash forward to the present for a commercial, Americanized version of the story with a predominantly black cast. Chris Rock is the leading man in the role of the well-intentioned Aaron, who’s hosting his father’s funeral at the family home. Aaron is trying to hold it all together financially and emotionally, tending to his wife Michelle (Regina Hall)—who’s revving to have sex in order to get pregnant—and his high-strung mother Cynthia (Loretta Devine), whose love is showered far more upon younger brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence). Ryan’s success as a fiction writer only highlights Aaron’s own frustrated attempts at producing a novel.

Others come in with their own emotional conflicts, foibles and troubles, including tortured family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan), the grumpy Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), and cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana) who inadvertently gives her boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden) a hallucinogenic pill. The biggest drama is that little person Frank (Peter Dinklage, who also appeared in the same role in the original) has been having an affair with the recently deceased patriarch and is ready to share pictures of their intimacy if he isn’t given $30,000.

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While all the details are here to have an effective comedy, the sum total comes up short, as the film’s script and uneven direction is more concerned with hamming up its humor instead of presenting the story as a cohesive role.

In the British Death, while hijinks were integral parts of the film, the laughs served to showcase a first-rate ensemble performance. Oz directed a clever and often devilish treatise on the importance of messy truths, particularly for the English upper-crust.

The new version, though dark in cast, isn’t comfortable with being dark in tone. We ultimately get some lines on accepting differences of all kinds with limited poignancy when little is offered to viewers that would allow us to go deep.

To its credit, however, the American Death plays it a bit more loosely when it comes to race. While its take on blackness is pretty standard, as seen with dialogue in different scenes about stripper bars and maintaining one’s manhood, it’s a given that the family members are comfortably middle-class without it being seen as odd. There’s no gratuitous shucking and jiving, nor is there the big black church moment that many would deem de rigueur considering the circumstances. No one cares that Elaine’s romantic interests seen at the service are both white, with one (Luke Wilson) being actively courted by her obnoxious father.

Her other paramour, Oscar, creates one of the biggest laughs of the film as he consoles Cynthia during his drug haze in a very down-home way. The great moment comes and goes as opposed to becoming a defining marker of the film.

Post-racial action can be had in viewing the two Deaths as well. If so inclined, feel free to check out the newest version, but then make sure to rent the original—which has not a brown face in sight—to compare and contrast directing styles, editing, cinematography and pacing. And then, leaving the identity politics at the door, ask yourself which one you prefer.