LOS ANGELES — Director Neil LaBute's new comedy Death at a Funeral, which stars a posse of comics headed by Chris Rock, is the movie version of karaoke. It sings the same tune as the 2007 British underground hit, but it's a little, and at times a lot, off-key.
Anyone who saw the original Frank Oz comedy, with its Pandora's box of problems sharing coffin space with a dysfunctional English family's deceased patriarch, should hold on to whatever fond memories they might have.
The problems start with Rock, who also is a producer here, which maybe gave him dibs on what role he wanted; he took the straight guy. Why? As Aaron, he's the serious older brother to whom all the funeral planning falls. But Rock wears boring like an ill-fitting suit.
Other than asking one of the funniest comics around to play the nebbishy central character, the film hews so closely to the original it can feel like an echo chamber with words, scenes, plot twists, even the opening credits' graphic style borrowed.
For the uninitiated, Death is very much an ensemble farce swirling around the death of the father — in this case an affluent African-American family long settled in an upscale Southern California neighborhood. Although Aaron and his wife have been living at home with the parents, Ryan (Martin Lawrence) is the favorite son who left years ago for New York, where he's a successful novelist and the source of much unresolved sibling rivalry. The assorted extended family is a multicultural cast of doctors, investment brokers and other professional types, each with issues they're working through.
Those intersecting issues get passed around like a hot potato, which makes for a fast-moving film, with broad slapstick carrying the comedy.
LaBute has done better mining the fun from some setups than others, with James Marsden engaging as the accidentally drugged boyfriend who's now gone commando and Tracy Morgan a good fit as the fat friend saddled with wheelchair-bound old Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and all the bodily issues and anger that accompany his advancing age.
In fact most of the ancillary bits swirling around the brothers hold up to the translation pretty well. But when the center is weak, the cake falls, and that's what happens here.
It's almost as if LaBute wasn't quite sure how to play nice. Though he knows how to put on a funeral so it's a polished and proficient affair, he never completely embraces Death and makes it his own.