Friday, April 16, 2010

Perhaps a change of color will help

As I mentioned on Monday, it's been two years since I got married. My wife and I had a terrific honeymoon, but it wasn't without its low points. I'm having trouble deciding the lowest low point, though. Maybe you can help me.

Was it

a) when the airline lost my wife's luggage on the second leg of our trip, leaving her without most of her clothes for the last ten days of our honeymoon, or

b) when we watched Death at a Funeral on my portable DVD player?

That's a joke, but not necessarily for the reason you think -- we also watched The Brothers Solomon, which I may have disliked even more than Death at a Funeral.

But I really did hate this British farce (directed by American Frank Oz). I found it busy, over-the-top and mean-spirited. And worst of all, not funny. This was the movie that made me realize how played out it is to have a character get accidentally dosed on psychadelic drugs, strip off all his clothes and climb up on the roof. I concluded my review thus: "Back in the day of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Frank Oz knew how to make total bastards hilarious. Now, he's making characters who should be sympathetic into total bastards."

But I guess Death at a Funeral was popular enough with people other than me, because tomorrow, Screen Gems has seen it fit to release a remake that's totally American this time. Totally African American, in fact.

Okay, not totally African American -- it's directed by a white guy (Neil Labute) and also features the likes of James Marsden and Luke Wilson. Plus, Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the blackmailing homosexual dwarf from the original. I guess Tony Cox, the African American dwarf from Bad Santa, wasn't available.

Is there reason to hope this version will be any better? Yes, some. The problem is, most of the people involved could go either way.

Let's take Chris Rock. He's probably one of the most beloved comics in the country today -- I can't think of a single person who would say they don't think he's funny. But his abilities have not yet translated to film. He's aces doing stand-up or hosting the Oscars, but he strikes out at the movies: Down to Earth, Head of State, Bad Company, I Think I Love My Wife ... need I go on? No one deserves a cinematic hit more than Rock, and some of the clips I've seen suggest that this could be it. But it's just as likely to continue his inexplicable trend of cinematic failure.

Then there's Tracy Morgan. Similar situation to Rock -- great on TV, not great at the movies. Cop Out was on the business end of some of this year's most intense critical lambasting.

Martin Lawrence gives me a little more hope. Ever since he's switched to family-friendly mode, Lawrence has become a likable presence in film and has been scoring some modest hits. Perhaps that will continue here.

And Zoe Saldana appears here, too. There may be no black actress headed to the stratosphere more quickly than Saldana -- literally, as she was in both Star Trek and Avatar last year. She's got another movie opening next week in The Losers, as well.

But shifting back to the pessimistic, some of the performers just seem past their prime. I'm looking at you, Luke Wilson and Danny Glover. Wilson has deservedly become a bit of a punching bag since he took on the role of AT&T pitchman -- the universal response to this decision seems to be that it's career suicide. Funny, because I didn't even realize he was having career problems until he started these terribly unfunny AT&T ads. Then there's Glover. Granted, the man is over 60, but he's definitely losing his skills. He's spent the last decade being pretty anonymous, though I suppose I should mention a small career resurgence when he turned up as the president (quite credibly) in 2012.

Perhaps my greatest source of pessimism is this film's director. No one is on a bigger losing streak, in my opinion, than Neil Labute. His lacerating debut, In the Company of Men, seems much longer than 13 years ago. Consider his string of failures since then: Your Friends & Neighbors, Possession, The Shape of Things, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace. I have not seen the last in that series, but from what I heard, it was terrible too. In fact, Labute's only good film since In the Company of Men was Nurse Betty, and that was ten years ago.

But let me finish on an optimistic note. And the following comment is going to be strange, considering that I spent yesterday's post praising a mean-spirited British farce. But I think a black American cast may be able to make this subject matter more funny than a white British cast.

It's difficult to make this assertion without seeming in some way insensitive, or like I'm making a value judgment about what different races can bring to the table. But I think it comes down to what we expect from this kind of movie. If you're watching a British farce, you're expecting a good helping of sophisticated, urbane humor. If you're watching an African American farce, you're expecting it to be a bit broader and more untamed. I don't necessarily think one is better than other -- it's just a matter of what mood you're in. And perhaps that was what I didn't like about the original Death at a Funeral -- I was expecting sophisticated and urbane, and I got broad and untamed. For the same reason, I'd probably be dissatisfied if I went to Labute's Death at a Funeral, and everyone was trying to make jokes about parliament and Oscar Wilde.

The thing is, this is a raucous, outrageous story, where all sorts of wrong corpses are in the wrong caskets, and accidental drug ingestion is the norm. So let's hope those interpreting it this time will be better choices to bring what could be a funny idea to the screen.

If I'm looking for a precedent for the possible success of this Death at a Funeral, I'd rather skip the original and consider a different ensemble comedy/drama in which a large black family pays tribute to a deceased patriarch: Doug McHenry's Kingdom Come (2001), which starred LL Cool J, Cedric the Entertainer, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica A. Fox. I reviewed this one too, and here was my final line:

"In its best moments, Kingdom Come even approaches a version of The Big Chill, with the funeral serving not only as a catalyst for confrontations among a dysfunctional clan, but a clear window into a character."


Casey said...

I actually thought that the british comedy was very funny. I think it was because of the acting as well as the ridiculous over-the-top plot twists. For me, the fact that it DID go over-the-top is what made it really funny.

I'm personally very upset that they are doing a direct re-make of the movie, ripping off every single piece of plot that the first movie created. Unoriginality doesn't impress me.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah Casey, I think I'm in the minority in not liking Death at a Funeral. But I just really did not like it.

Mike Lippert said...

Vance, I didn't really like the original either altough it had a few moments. Howeverm the reamke is hilarious. Look for my review coming soon.