COMEDY of embarrassment, with close links to pure farce, has long been a British thing – think Fawlty Towers. It is particularly well suited to half-hour television slots, but Frank Oz has used it to pretty good effect in this film.
Funerals lend themselves to embarrassment anyway. They encourage unsuitable giggling, probably from a visceral fear that next time round you might be the one in the coffin, with someone sanctifying you in an airbrushed eulogy.
Death at a Funeral starts with the undertakers delivering the coffin to an eminently respectable-looking middle class home, to be greeted by the sombre-faced son of the house. There’s just one problem – it’s not his father’s corpse, and so the undertakers have to make a speedy exit to go and find the right one.
That little problem sorted, it’s on with the funeral. There’s a grieving widow (Jane Asher), sad son who still lives at home, along with his wife, who is desperate to move out (Matthew MacFadyen and Keeley Hawes), successful novelist son who has breezed in from New York (Rupert Graves) and assorted other friends and relations. The dead man’s niece is keen for her solicitor boyfriend to make a good impression on her father, but unfortunately, he has inadvertenly taken some acid on the way to the funeral and is set to cause mayhem. And inevitably there is the embarrassing elderly uncle in a wheelchair, who is destined to give the film its seriously gross-out moment.
There is also a mysterious dwarf no one recognises. They are all far too politically correct to refer to him as anything other than a small person, but he’ll cause king-sized trouble.
Most of the film is very funny and all the performances are excellent – Andy Nyman deserves a special mention as the funeral guest to whom most of the worst things seem to happen. One or two of the situations are signalled a little too obviously, but Oz manages to leave some loose ends. A few more could possibly have lifted Death at a Funeral from merely entertaining to the truly wacky. For instance, we are never told why the vicar is in such a hurry, but his need to be gone by 3 pm creates some great situations, and the fact that no one knows, or cares, why just makes it funnier.
Disasters happen, awful secrets are revealed, but at the end, all is resolved. It’s not a great comedy, but it’s a good one – and a funeral from hell you can be grateful isn’t yours.