Directed by Frank Oz
Death at a Funeral is a comedy about chaos and selfishness and finally family, because it’s always nice to end on a positive. The story centers around the funeral of a man who is mostly undefined, precisely because he’s dead the whole time. But somehow this man is enough of a presence to drive the story, and we’re able to figure out things about him based on the people who attend the funeral. His brother Victor is a hardass, and because they look enough alike (bald and vaguely like a soccer hooligan who has grown up and straightened out, ruling his home with an iron fist to make sure his children don’t have the freedom he did), it’s safe to assume the dead man was much like him. He leaves behind two sons, Daniel and Robert, who are mildly successful but nonetheless childish in their own ways. Daniel can’t handle telling his wife that he hasn’t yet put money down on their new flat, and Robert chases women like he went through puberty yesterday.
From the very beginning we see beneath the well-dressed, quiet composures of these characters and into their contained insanity, and soon enough we see into the mind of Robert’s and Daniel’s deceased father as well. When an American dwarf (Peter Dinklage) named Peter shows up, demanding 15,000 pounds or else he’ll tell everyone about his affair with the boys’ father, Robert and Daniel suddenly have an all too clear view into their dead father’s mind. This was something he hid from them his entire life. The only difference with the boys is that the skeletons in their closet are less hidden and less easily defined.
Their father was “a gay,” as the other family members put it, each one shocked in their own way, but the rest of the main cast of characters are riddled with insecurity, jealousy, and judgment issues, meaning the skeletons in their closet are more easily camouflaged but almost more dangerous.
Death at a Funeral exists in it’s own kind of vacuum, like a horror story shot entirely at a small cabin in the woods, and this vacuum allows these characters’ respective neuroses and misbehavior run rampant as if it was forced out of them by onlooking behavioral scientists. This is a safe space, in other words, in which the characters get just about everything out into the open with little consequence, ultimately, even if things look south for a bit.
I guess the more I think about it, this does seem to feel like a comedy horror film. The ‘horror’ in Death at a Funeral, though, is more about the cringe-worthy embarrassment for certain characters and the brief gross out humor. Certainly there is a feeling of doom and inevitability, just as there is in a horror movie. In this case we are offered something for each character that can and will go wrong. Troy sells drugs and puts acid in a valium bottle. Simon is anxious, so his fiance’s idea is to give him some valium. Daniel is envious and resentful towards his brother, so you know that’s going to affect his judgment at some point in the story, and it does. There are plenty more examples, and each character seems to be defined by one quality above all else, whether it’s hatred, crotchetiness, jealous, pride, lust, insecurity, etc.
It then becomes not so much the characters clashing but rather their dominating emotional vice, having already won out within the character’s mind to dominate over the rest of their subconscious. That means that Daniel is mostly insecure and resentful even though under normal circumstances he might be a nice, thoughtful, introspective man.
So another point of the story might be that events like a funeral might heighten the worst in us. There is a pretty simple dichotomy hear of characters with the appearance of a mild-mannered, culturally-appropriate adult who is really a complete mess on the inside, whether because of the stress of a funeral or because that’s just who they are. But the situation doesn’t explain the characters’ neuroses. Instead it simply highlights them, and this is a way for the movie to tell us that we all have this inside of us, even if it doesn’t explode to the surface as it does here.
If horror movies emphasize a particular fear we might have, stretching it out and blowing it out of proportion to make a point, comedies emphasize something that might be ridiculous yet truthful about ourselves and the way we live. Some comedies satirize people and industries, pointing out an underlying truth about those things. Other comedies poke fun at a particular character, maybe showing him or her to be powerless to the greater, stronger open world (like a Woody Allen character). Then you have comedies that more or less react to other movies, like Tucker & Dale Versus Evil or any comedy that parodies a particular genre.
Comedies, like horror movies, point to something in the way we live. They don’t necessarily subtextually call for change but instead just want to shine a light on something we may or may not realize. Now that I’m thinking about this, it seems like comedies and horror movies are much more closely tied to the world and time period in which they are made than do dramas. And yet dramatic films are the ones most nominated for movie awards.
I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because the lack of context for a particular film makes it more timeless. The comedies and horror films of the 1950s, for example, may not be considered funny or scary by today’s standards. These genres capitalize on what’s in the world at that time, as if it’s referencing an inside joke which you only understand if you’re alive at the time. A dramatic film creates it’s own world, meaning as long as you watch the entire movie you will get it. They build the world for you, but certain comedies and horror movies ask you to know something about the world going in. Even if these genres stylistically resemble nothing like our world (no one cracks that many jokes, no cabin is really that riddled with ghosts), they are always about our world. The mainstream dramatic films, then, typically try to reflect our world as it is onscreen, making a sort of parallel universe story. Those movies aren’t as often about the world we’ve created.
Now, there are exceptions to all of this, of course. A Stanley Kubrick film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, while existing in a more or less straightforward depiction of our world (even if in another time period), is about us. Every war film is about war, saying something usually against such violence. Moonlight is very much about our culture today.
But then you have a film like Argo or Hell or High Water, just to name two completely random examples. These are dramas in consideration for movie awards, and they’re not about US as much as they are about a part of us or experiences we don’t know first hand but know of. I’m not a bank robber in Texas who wants to get back at the bank that is foreclosing his home. And sure I have feelings similar to the characters in that movie, to a degree, but that movie is about something I’ve only briefly touched. In other words it’s not about me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie or that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s timeless in the sense that it establishes what and who it’s about, and we can buy in.
Now a movie like Get Out is very much about us. Sure, again it’s not about everyone, but it covers a wide enough territory (black and white, interracial relationships both romantic and platonic) that it’s about us right now. Going in we know what it’s commenting on, but if the world is much different 40 years from now, then when you go back to watch this movie you might need to read a history book to get the full picture.
Maybe another way of putting this is that a dramatic picture prioritizes the experience of the movie itself, but comedies and horrors prioritize the focus on our experience as a culture right now (or at any point in time).
Why is the reveal of the dead father as a gay man meant to be so shocking in Death at a Funeral? The focus isn’t on the affair as much as it is that the affair was with a man, and the fact that that man is a dwarf is clearly meant to add to the comedy and absurdity of the situation. Maybe this movie, without trying to, says something about how the culture in 2007 viewed same sex relationships. When every character, in a surprised voice, mentioned how their father was “a gay,” it felt surprisingly outdated.
Here’s one more example that I’m pulling out of my ass: the comedy of Kindergarten Cop versus 21 Jump Street. In the former, the comedy is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is forced to become a kindergarten teacher, placing him around wild children. It puts a man in a position predominantly thought to belong to women, and even further, it puts a man’s man, the strongman Arnie in that position. To an extent there is the same focus in a movie like Mrs. Doubtfire or The Tooth Fairy (I think). These are movies with a man’s man, the epitome of testosterone, in a less masculine role. Wouldn’t it be funny if this masculine guy was forced to be less masculine? I think it says something about what we found funny at the time, and that in itself says something about what we think men are supposed to do in society. Men are supposed to be men.
But in recent years, gender roles have become accepted as more fluid. A character’s homosexuality isn’t played out as a joke anymore, as it shouldn’t be. Now we have comedies like 21 Jump Street (a movie I love), in which the joke is that the masculine character, played by Channing Tatum, doesn’t understand how the world has changed. The high school students in that movie prioritized thoughtfulness and diversity over being “cool.” The joke wasn’t the kids but Tatum’s own disbelief and struggle to fit in. The joke was still about the character, but it referenced the ways in which the world has changed and continues to change.
So even if a small part of Death at a Funeral feels a little dated, the movie is still about something we can all relate to, feeling of insecurity, jealousy, etc. But the ‘message’ of the movie, delivered in Daniel’s climactic eulogy, doesn’t highlight the humor of the movie. I can feel myself not making sense, so what I mean is that the message is universal (chaotic feelings), but the humor is more specific: there are poop jokes, grumpy old man jokes, drug jokes, etc. You might watch this movie and like the takeaway but not enjoy the humor, or vice versa.
Okay, after all this I’m not sure what I said or believe, but I do think that comedies and horror movies are more connected to the world from which they’re produced, as if this particular comedy/horror movie has to be released right now to make any sense.