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Good grief -- 'Death' is funny stuff

Non-Brit Alan Tudyk stands out in a tightly knit ensemble in twisted 'Death at a Funeral.'

August 17, 2007|Sid Smith | Chicago Tribune

"Death at a Funeral" is lethal farce, combining hints of "The Lavender Hill Mob," doses of Joe Orton and a smidgen of the Farrelly brothers' scatology in its mix.

It's sillier but funnier than "Knocked Up," the summer's other notable comedy. Plopped on Agatha Christie-like terrain and featuring a mostly English cast -- British-born director Frank Oz of Muppet renown is at the helm -- the movie has a transoceanic pearl in the form of actor Alan Tudyk, a Texas-born off-Broadway veteran who had a small part in "Knocked Up" as a TV boss.

Here Tudyk glories in a hilarious, largely silent performance involving one of the story's daffier plot twists. He plays a stiff businessman named Simon who, before arriving at the staid funeral of the title, inadvertently swallows a tab of homemade hallucinogens stored in a bottle labeled Valium. What ought to be a cobwebbed echo of "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" is fresh and hysterical, thanks to Tudyk's winsome charm, sharp timing and elastic, Stan Laurel-like face. He winds up idiotically nude atop the upper-middle-class home in which the funeral takes place, yet manages to make every scene he's in work, sometimes uncannily.

"Death" is set in the ultimate occasion demanding good behavior, only to let in a hearse-load of bad manners, gross mishaps and unpardonable sins. The nonsense starts when the wrong corpse is brought by the morticians. Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen, the diffident Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice"), a son of the deceased, nervously prepares the eulogy even though his glamorous brother Robert (Rupert Graves) is a well-known novelist flying in from New York. Character after character expresses regret that Daniel, the lesser writer, will be the one to speak, all within Daniel's mortified earshot. A cousin, Martha (Daisy Donovan), is coming with her fiancé, Simon (Tudyk), hoping at last he'll make a good impression on her father. Simon's nerves are the reason he takes the ersatz Valium when they pick up Martha's brother, a pharmacy student who dabbles in designer drugs.

Boasting a tightly knit ensemble, unlike the erratic casts in such earlier Oz efforts as "The Stepford Wives" and the uneven "In & Out," the movie's standouts include Tudyk, Andy Nyman as a weasel-like hypochondriac and Macfadyen, the comic embodiment of glum.

The sibling rivalry/resolution meant to give the movie its sweet, heartfelt thread is weak, and there are stretches in which the comedy sags or settles for the predictable. But "Death" provides an adult tonic in a season typically abandoned to the comic book cocktail. There are worse ways to escape the August heat.

"Death at a Funeral." MPAA rating: R for language and drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.

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