British comedies are a class unto their own. They simply have a way of demonstrating the quirkiness of ordinary human interaction in the face of outrageous circumstances that include the inevitable events of life. What’s more inevitable than death and taxes? Family events! Funerals, weddings, wakes, baptisms, a briss… what they have in common is that you’re required to be there and even if you don’t want to be present, British propriety demands you learn to fake it well. These two Brit comedies, the recent DVD release Death at a Funeral and the 1994 Hugh Grant vehicle Four Weddings and a Funeral combine daft humor, classic Shakespearean story points and characterization which rings both true and outlandish at the same time. Let’s say you’ve got the popcorn popping and a significant somebody on the couch: which of these films that want to tickle your funny bone and pull at your heart strings is the one to rent for the night?
Death at a Funeral, directed by Frank Oz, (Yes! Miss Piggy directs real people!) and starring Matthew MacFadyen of Pride & Prejudice takes place at (you guessed it) a funeral. Daniel’s (MacFadyen) father has died and now the loyal and faithful son who lives with his wife in the family home must somehow organize the event, give the eulogy that no one wants to hear (his successful brother is a New York novelist), placate his grumpy Great Uncle Alfie, who he shoves off onto a bumbling friend with hilarious results, payoff a blackmailing midget harboring a family secret, and dodge his wife who asks every time she sees him if he’s put the deposit on their new flat, where she hopes to move the moment the coffin is in the ground. Add the classic Shakespearean story point (the mislaid letter, or in this case, the mislaid and consumed bottle of psychotropic pills disguised as Valium), an unwelcome sexual advance and viola… hilarity ensues. All the while you’re wondering, who will be the death at the funeral?
The performances are detailed and fun, particularly that of Broadway’s Spamalot Sir Lancelot, Adam Tudyk, and a notable performance by Peter Dinklage. That, coupled with MacFadyen’s straight man sincerity, and you’ve got a wacky family that you can’t help but root for. What Death at a Funeral lacks is a depth of character, and witty banter, but successfully substitutes slap stick and lovable caricatures. Instead of hoping to see who dies, you end up dreading it, even if it turns out to be grumpy Great Uncle Alfie. Thus, we have a movie that not only demonstrates family dysfunction, but revels in it, celebrates it, and makes the viewer homesick indeed.
The Defending Champion
Four Weddings and a Funeral put Hugh Grant on the American map. Directed by Mike Newell and penned by Richard Curtis the story follows lovesick Charles (Grant) as he pines for an American woman, Carrie (Andie MacDowell), starting at one wedding and following along to the last, with a funeral in between. The first few weddings attended are merely a comedy of errors (Hello, Shakespeare!), demonstrating Charles’ social awkwardness, his reputation as a dog amongst the women, and as a witness to the bizarre behavior prevalent at drunken family gatherings.
Once the fun of the first few weddings are out of the way, however, the movie becomes a romance, concentrating its efforts on match making Charles and his misfit friends amongst the varied people they meet and mingle with at the nuptials. Notable performances include Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Grant’s, which were layered and delivered with care and are by far, the most interesting coupling in the film. With heart, a sultry sweeping score and a rainy declaration of love, Four Weddings and a Funeral is one part comedy, two parts love story, all balanced to create a movie experience aimed to please all.
Depending on your preference, Death at a Funeral and Four Weddings and a Funeral could be neck and neck in regards to witty Brit humor, in the beginning. Both works have tongue in cheek appreciation for the society shown, and the characters it draws. Even though it can be a little like trying to compare a single camera dramedy television series to a multi-camera sitcom (Ugly Betty to How I Met Your Mother?), they’re still more alike than they are different.
If tone’s the thing, though, the new film isn’t afraid to go for slapstick while the earlier one is all about aiming straight for the heart. Me? I’m all heart. (Okay, maybe not, but when there’s low-hanging fruit, you gotta pick it.)
Director Frank Oz takes a subtle approach to Death at a Funeral with clean transitions, quick scenes ending on a punchline that linger just long enough so you can soak-in the reactions from the actors, and flawless flow from one shot to the next. On the other hand, Mike Newell’s direction of Four Weddings and a Funeral is seamless with active camera movement and a stellar use of positioned pan shots, most particularly at the third wedding reception. This one’s a tie.
The story of Death at a Funeral starts a bit choppy, penned by Dean Craig, but smooths out as the characters all converge to one location, the funeral at the family home. Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral script, in contrast, is all about breaking apart and coming back together. Curtis takes Craig on this one, based on the sheer originality of the concept and how it moves through time so effortlessly but feels like a very tightly integrated whole.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is a hoot from its first frame but its story does drift eventually to concentrate on the lead hero’s emotional angst. When it makes that move, the comedy takes second seat to the romance. Yet even though Andie MacDowell looks simply smashing in her Brit attire, her character fails to show any internal dialog on her perfectly etched porcelain face and that distance robs the audience of some of the experience of falling in love along with the hero.
Not that you won’t get some authentic laughs if you pick your movie while blindfolded here, but that’s not the Smackdown way. You deserve a winner and we aim to please…
Honestly, I got distracted by the love story in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Yes, I know, Hugh Grant is cute as hell in this film and women all over the world fell in love with him off of this. The point is, the same can’t be said for men and Andie MacDowell. One-sided romance makes the film fall short. On the other hand, Death at a Funeral enjoys impeccable comic timing, the situations are ludicrous enough, yes, but the laughs are hearty. Death at a Funeral wins by a coffin.