Tracy Morgan (left) and Chris Rock stare Death in the face
DEATH AT A FUNERAL (Neil LaBute). 92 minutes. Opens Friday (April 16). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
It seems strange to remake Death At A Funeral when the body is barely cold. The first production of Dean Craig's middling comedy of manners made its way around the world just three years ago. But someone's obviously calculated that the audiences for British door-slamming farces and Chris Rock movies are radically different - or at least that they don't wander the same aisles of the video store - so here we go again.
The new American version relocates the action from a quiet English estate to a house in Los Angeles and features considerably more uses of "motherfucker" in the dialogue. But otherwise it's exactly the same movie about a fractious clan assembling to bury their patriarch, with everything going disastrously wrong.
Rock plays the straight man, an affable but underachieving tax accoun tant who's buckling under the strain of his father's death, his mother's (Lor etta Devine) fragility and his wife's (Regina Hall) desire to conceive a child (preferably before the service, but immediately afterward would be okay, too).
Everyone else gets to go bigger and crazier: Martin Lawrence is Rock's high-flying author brother; Tracy Morgan a family friend obsessed with a weird rash on his palm; Zoe Saldana a cousin trying to avoid an amorous ex (Luke Wilson) while trying to keep her judgmental father (Ron Glass) from taking even more of a dislike to her current beau (James Marsden).
And Peter Dinklage displays some bizarre integrity by reprising his performance in the 2007 version as a mysterious stranger with a deep connection to the deceased. It's as though he's been digitally inserted from the origi nal film.
That said, it's Marsden, the scene-stealer of Hairspray and Enchanted, who gets the showiest role. As Saldana's boyfriend, who's unwittingly dosed with a home-brewed hallucinogen and spends virtually the entire movie in a state of blissful dementia, he puts his own particular spin on a part created in the 2007 version by the gifted Alan Tudyk.
But in spite of all the talent on the screen - which also includes Danny Glover as an irascible wheelchair-bound codger and Keith David as an increasingly impatient reverend - the problems remain firmly rooted on the page.
When I saw the original version, I thought director Frank Oz wasn't able to synchronize his style to the rhythms of the British cast and script. Now I realize the problem is the script itself, a hodgepodge of contrivances populated by characters that never become more than stick figures. It milks most of its presumed laughs from sending people flailing around in a panic without really giving them anything to flail around about.
Directing his first Chris Rock comedy, Neil LaBute (remember when he was considered the second coming of David Mamet?) at least keeps the energy up and the camera moving. He gives Marsden licence to do anything he wants, and tries to fit Morgan's random silliness in wherever possible.
You really have to hand it to Morgan. The man can - and does - pack references to sickle-cell anemia, the Incredible Hulk and The Maury Povich Show into a single sentence. It's quite amazing, and if you've seen the origi nal film, it's the only thing here that'll surprise you.