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Farcial ‘Death at a Funeral’ not so grave

‘Death at a Funeral’ Digs a Farcical Grave

By Michael Sragow

The Baltimore Sun

The late director Ingmar Bergman gave us a classical dance of death, but it’s more like a madcap macarena in “Death at a Funeral,” a half-hilarious farce about a family’s vain attempt to bury its patriarch with dignity at his suburban manse in the verdant English countryside.

The movie maintains its comical rocky equilibrium as long as the screenwriter, Dean Craig, sticks to domestic disasters and a Monty Python parody of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Laughs mount as tensions reach flash point between the stay-at-home married brother Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) and his famous expatriate-novelist sibling Robert (Rupert Graves), and also between the boys’ self-dramatizing mother Sandra (Jane Asher) and Robert’s long-suffering wife Jane (Keely Hawes).

The director, Frank Oz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) does some of his best work ever helping the actors get the most out of barbed throwaways, such as Sandra’s remark, “Tea can do many things, Jane, but it can’t bring back the dead.”

This merry mesh of household relations gives the film a box-spring firm enough to support slapstick complications.

For example, the dead man’s niece, Martha (Daisy Donovan), shows up with an insecure fiance, Simon (Alan Tudyk), who inadvertently has taken hallucinogens, giving Justin (Ewen Bremner), a long-ago one-night-stand who won’t take Martha’s “no” for an answer, the illusion that he sees an opening.

And there’s a mysterious stranger, Peter (Peter Dinklage), whom no one can quite place — which is odd, because he’s a little person with a distinct romantic glower.

Tudyk is the stand-out: As Simon he takes elastic expressions to such extremes he’s like a lyric physical poet of the whacked-out, or a sprite out of his own midsummer night’s bad dream.

And MacFadyen is sympathetic and amusing as Daniel, who can’t even announce he’s delivering the eulogy without everyone murmuring that they’d wish Robert the novelist were giving it instead. Daniel has written a novel himself but won’t show it to anyone; when you hear the start of his risibly digressive and awkward eulogy, you can guess why.

Roughly 45 minutes in, when Peter reveals his true connection to the deceased, the movie begins to run out of fun, partly because the twists and revelations grow increasingly predictable.

Filmed at England’s famed Ealing Studios, the movie tries to conjure the jet-black sensibility of such famous and beloved Ealing-studio comedies as “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” but it doesn’t have the same relish for the dark side of the soul.

Still, until it loses its guts and its way, “Death at a Funeral” generates a fair number of laughs and makes you cheer as it tries the impossible: Creating seemingly heartless comedy, with a heart.

“Death at a Funeral”

Starring Matthew MacFadyen, Rupert Graves, Ewen Bremner, Daisy Donovan, Jane Asher, Alan Tudyk.

Directed by Frank Oz.

Rated R.

Time: 90 minutes.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.