Because one expects sadness and a particular degree of decorum at a funeral service, the outrageous chain of events that unspools in director Frank Oz's wickedly funny comedy provokes more laughter than if this upper-crust British family and their friends were gathering at a birthday celebration. The remarkable ensemble cast plays its parts with a seriousness befitting the solemn occasion. The inappropriate and uncontrollable laughter that you hear will be your own.
Screenwriter Dean Craig ("Caffeine") has crafted a sitcom of social embarrassment. The structural idea is simple: Gather a group for the funeral of a beloved man. Toss in a bottle of hallucinogenic pills mislabeled as Valium and a mysterious stranger. When Martha (Daisy Donovon of "Millions"), the niece of the deceased, unknowingly gives her nervous boyfriend Simon (the scene-stealing Alan Tudyk of "Knocked Up") a tablet of acid, he starts to behave in the most peculiar ways. Simon's social gaffes draw stares and gasps from the others in attendance. But before his trip can become a tiresome one-note joke, the small-stature stranger (Peter Dinklage of "The Station Agent") complicates matters by revealing a big secret to a select few.
The Brits with their stiff upper lips and sense of propriety provide the perfect foil for all the silliness. Matthew MacFadyen ("Pride & Prejudice") sets the tone when the wrong coffin is delivered to the family's country estate. Although concerned about the whereabouts of his father's body, dutiful-son Daniel also mutters in disdain that he might have provided "a service for some random member of the public." Much humor emerges from the haughtiness of a social class about to get its comeuppance.
Remove the British accents and references to cups of tea and this comedy could take place anywhere. Family dynamics, money problems and blackmail are universal. Because his successful-novelist brother (Rupert Graves of "V for Vendetta") has just flown in from the Big Apple - and is clearly their mother's (Jane Asher) favorite - sibling rivalry surfaces with arguments over who should pay for the funeral.
Whether directing "The Muppets Take Manhattan" or "Bowfinger," Oz can deliver fast-paced comedy with an abundance of visual and verbal gags. The actors have perfect comic timing, and their deadpan reactions to shocking developments are exercises in understatement. One of the best scenes occurs in the study. Stunned over the stranger's allegations, Daniel's gaze ricochets from one of his father's familiar objects to another and another. Suddenly, he sees the objets d'art in an entirely new way. As he leaves the room, an older relative relates a seemingly innocent childhood memory that confirms the son's worst fears and ends the scene with a verbal punch line. Instead of hammer-on-the-head humor, this farce offers a comic subtleness rarely seen anymore.
"Death at a Funeral" is less concerned about burying the family patriarch than bringing relationships back to life. The comedy doesn't have much to say, but its humor is killer.