“Death at a Funeral” is a screwball, slapstick, scatological farce that represents the species of comedy that views the violation of decorum as inherently hilarious while having never met a coffin gag it didn’t adore. Shift sensibility gears into British and silly modes, and you’ll likely emit some giggles as respectable people drag a body around and otherwise wax imbecilic. But as antics eclipse character for 90 minutes, the movie isn’t funny enough to overjoy your goofball lobes or substantial enough to please more deeply.
Both a dysfunctional-family comedy and a corpse-in-the-study romp, the story combines stock ingredients with fresh seasoning in the setting of an English manor. The occasion is a funeral, and mini-dramas abound.
Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen), unsuccessful son of the deceased, finds himself upstaged by his famous novelist brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), whose arrival reignites their rivalry.
Cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan) wants her disagreeable father to approve of her fiancé, Simon (Alan Tudyk), but Simon’s inadvertent ingestion of a hallucinogen outrageously prevents such fortune. Instead, Simon, usually a stuffy sort, situates himself on the roof, naked.
Meanwhile, Peter (Peter Dinklage), an American stranger, reveals shocking information about the departed, complete with graphic photos. An attempt to bury the scandal along with Dad leaves Daniel with a second body on his hands.
Smaller plot lines also unfold, and as directed by Frank Oz (“Bowfinger,” “In and Out”) and written by newcomer Dean Craig, the sum is an ambitiously but unevenly nutty parlor trifle, animated by madcap energy but weakened by thinness.
While the aforementioned material sparks mild-to-moderate laughs, the filmmakers are visibly straining elsewhere. Scenes involving an obnoxious ex-lover (Ewen Bremner) who hits on Martha get tedious fast, as do those in which a family friend obsesses over “pigment mutation.” The toilet troubles of an elderly uncle we surely don’t need.
The film also hurts itself by letting dysfunctions and plights define the characters rather than delivering well-drawn protagonists whose humanity might keep us caring throughout the shenanigans. For all their purportedly real-life conditions — sibling rivalry, daddy issues, hypochondria — these people seem artificial and contrived.
This isn’t the fault of the ensemble cast, which delivers some marvelous performances. Standouts include Tudyk and Dinklage, who enable Oz to reap inordinate comic mileage from their segments.
Death at a Funeral **½
Starring Matthew MacFadyen, Peter Dinklage, Daisy Donovan, Alan Tudyk
Written by Dean Craig
Directed by Frank Oz
1 hour, 30 minutes