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By Rick Kisonak | April 20, 2010

The latest nail in the coffin of once promising playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute’s career, “Death at a Funeral” is so strained, noisy, desperate and mirthlessly scatological it’s hard to believe it features talents like Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan as opposed to a cast of latex cartoons with Eddie Murphy inside them.

What’s become of the writer-director who made his reputation with blistering social comedies like “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors”? The siren song of Tinseltown evidently proved impossible to resist and, since the turn of the century, his energies have been channeled into such mainstream projects as “Nurse Betty,” “Lakeview Terrace” and a universally derided remake of “The Wicker Man.” A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste.

And now this mindless remake of a British farce of the same name directed just three years ago by Frank Oz. One can only speculate as to the motivation. Maybe LaBute or some studio suit caught a screening of Oz’s comedy, which hinged on an attempt by stiff-upper-lip types to maintain their reserve in the face of screwball mayhem that interrupts a family funeral and thought “you know what would make this really funny-moving the action to an L.A. suburb and replacing this family with an African-American one!” It’s epiphanies like that which lead to “Wicker Man” remakes.

The cast is large but you can count the laughs on one hand. Rock is Aaron, the eldest son of the man in the casket. Well, once the correct casket is delivered to the family home. A casket containing an Asian corpse is mistakenly delivered at the start of the film. You know you’re in for an hour and a half of high grade humor when a paperwork snafu is a comic highpoint.

Martin Lawrence plays younger brother Ryan, a writer whose trashy novels have made him rich and something of a pompous twit. Morgan’s a friend of the family and a hyper hypochondriac. Then there’s Danny Glover in the role of wheelchair-bound Uncle Russell. The female castmembers are one dimensional afterthoughts: Regina Hall, Aaron’s wife and Loretta Devine, his mother, for example, exist solely to berate Rock’s character for thus far failing to produce a child.

Running gags include a guest (James Marsden) who takes what he believes is a Valium and turns out to be a powerful hallucinogen. Yeah, that could happen. He spends the movie naked, babbling on the roof. A dwarf (Peter Dinklage) holds up the proceedings by attempting to extort money from the dead man’s sons after informing them he was his lover and producing photos to prove it. Unfunny things befall him as a result, things Dinklage should’ve known better than to sign on for since he played the same role in the original. And then there’s the uncle’s chronic diarrhea. Nothing says belly laugh quite like the sight of a crippled old man attempting to negotiate an unfamiliar commode.

Something tells me there are actual funerals funnier than this film. I mean how hard can it possibly be to get something entertaining on screen when you’ve got not just one but two titans of comedy in front of the camera just waiting to do what they do? Even hampered by a script as pinheaded as Dean Craig’s, it’s not every director who could succeed in making a watch-checking chore out of sitting through a movie featuring Morgan and Rock but LaBute does. Sad to say that’s about the only kind of thing he seems to succeed at these days.

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