Frank Oz, better known as the voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy, has settled into the director's chair quite frequently in his career, even dabbling in comedy on occasion. At the helm of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he paired Steve Martin and Michael Caine to comedic effect, ditto Martin and Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger. Death at a Funeral sees him working without stars, but the comedy doesn't really seem to suffer.
The film begins with a very funny gag involving the opening of a casket, not the easiest moment in life from which to wring humor. With it, we are introduced to Daniel (Matthew MacFayden), who is about to bury his father. With the aid of his wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) he must accommodate a gaggle of guests pre-loaded with neuroses.
As the guests arrive, their sitcom-ready subplots engage. Daniel's cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) has given her nervous fiancée (Alan Tudyk) some Valium which turn out to be a psychedelic cocktail cooked up by her brother Troy (Kris Marshall). This, of course, on the very day she hopes to impress her father Victor (Peter Egan) with her choice of beau. Daniel, in the meantime, has to simultaneously deal with the presence of his far more successful brother Robert (Rupert Graves) and the promise he's made to Jane to start a new life outside the shadow of his family. On top of this (and three or four other minor dramas), a mystery guest (Peter Dinklage) has arrived with a shocking secret about the guest of honor and a hidden agenda of his own.
The screenplay, by Dean Craig, juggles these narratives with ease. It's the performances, however, that truly carry the threads. Tudyk, one of the few Yanks in the room, practically steals the film while Dinklage makes the most out of a truncated role with some of the most expressive facial acting this side of Kevin Smith. Andy Nyman, as Daniel's put-upon hypochondriac friend Howard, sells his neuroses without turning into a stock player.
Oz pulls this all together into a mixture of comedic styles, his American (though English-born) sensibilities with a mostly British cast and British screenwriter. The end result feels like a British attempt to pull off American humor -- broad versus dry. And while it doesn't always work, it makes for an interesting take on a familiar dish.
Not all of the elements rise to the top. Trainspotting vet Ewen Bremmer gets saddled with a particularly uninvolving subplot that has him pining after Martha; it never really goes anywhere. The female characters, for the most part, play straight woman to their wacky male counterparts without developing much on their own. And in spite of some very funny moments, the movie doesn't really find its energy until the second half, spinning its wheels until then.
Death at a Funeral sees Oz returning quite comfortably to comedy without all the trappings of an A-list cast. It sees him returning to ensemble comedy for the first time since The Muppets Take Manhattan. And while Matthew MacFayden's Daniel may not be Kermit the Frog (although they both end up herding goofy supporting characters), Death at a Funeral is no less satisfying for its trouble - though I don't remember Fozzy Bear ever wandering around naked and tripping on a rooftop.