While it's easy to be put off by the often confrontational quality of Neil LaBute's plays and movies, one would be foolish to deny that he is a skilled writer, in that he knows how to shape and pace an entire story. That particular gift serves him well as a director in his remake of the 2007 British film Death at a Funeral.
LaBute's version stars Chris Rock as Aaron, a well-meaning guy attempting to pull off a respectable funeral service for his recently deceased dad. His good intentions are undone by the wacky family members he's forced to juggle: his ovulating baby-crazy wife keeps trying to seduce him; his horndog brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), won't help pay for the funeral; his cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana) has accidentally dosed her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), with a potent batch of LSD; and his crusty uncle Russell (Danny Glover) lacks all social graces. Throw in Norman (Tracy Morgan), a motor-mouthed family friend with an undiagnosed skin rash, as well as a blackmailing dwarf (Peter Dinklage), and soon Aaron has so many balls in the air that it seems inevitable they will all come crashing down.
You might expect a movie as farcical as this one to slowly build to a breakneck pace, much like the classic screwball comedies, but LaBute -- working from a script by Dean Craig, who also wrote the 2007 original -- defies expectations by keeping a measured tempo throughout. He's confident the gags will work, so he doesn't feel the need to pile them right on top of each other. That's not to say there aren't some outrageous and hysterical set pieces, including a disgusting and hilarious scene between Uncle Russell and Norman that takes the phrase "toilet humor" more literally than you might expect. But even when LaBute pushes things to extremes, he slows it back down in an attempt to keep his characters from becoming caricatures.
Sadly, his two lead actors aren't much help to him in that capacity. Chris Rock is the best standup comic of his generation, but he's never been a convincing movie actor. Sure he can be funny, and he sinks his teeth into his best lines with a shark-like tenacity, but there is a big difference between playing a comic persona and acting. Rock hasn't mastered that distinction yet, but he's more believable than Martin Lawrence.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast delivers. Peter Dinklage -- reprising his part from the original movie -- is typically superb, Marsden keeps getting laughs with Oscar's increasingly erratic behavior, Danny Glover is a blast playing totally against type, and Tracy Morgan gets to deliver dozens of great lines, particularly a mini-rant about Kentucky Fried Chicken that could have come from the twisted mind of his 30 Rock character, Tracy Jordan. Add their sturdy support to LaBute's assured direction, and the result may not be as lively as you'd expect, but it's a long way from comedic death.