As someone once said (I’m not sure who, because the quote has been attributed to more than one theatrical legend), “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
To illustrate the point, along comes “Death at a Funeral,” in which death sparks the comedy.
A pity this mechanical Britcom can’t always bring the laughs to life.
In Frank Oz, it’s got a director who knows how to handle humor — as long as the script delivers the goods in the first place. (Think “Bowfinger” or “In & Out” or “What About Bob?” or “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” all of which benefitted from Oz’s ability to combine verbal and visual humor.)
Alas, the intent’s better than the execution in screenwriter Dean Craig’s first produced screenplay, which piles up the looniness but can’t always keep the pieces from falling apart.
But leave it to Oz and his distinguished, mostly British cast, all of whom do their utmost to wring what comedy they can from the movie’s tumbling-dominoes structure.
That’s the primary problem. In “Death at a Funeral,” everybody has to work hard — too hard — to manufacture laughs that should emerge effortlessly.
Even so, the laughs are there — sporadically — as a fractured family and assorted associates gather for what turns out to be the funeral from hell.
The first clue that things are destined to go awry: The funeral home delivers the wrong body to the service, to be held at the recently deceased’s country residence.
That’s only the first of many crises the departed’s dutiful son Daniel (“Pride and Prejudice’s” Matthew MacFadyen, trading dash for hangdog desperation) must face in his doomed-to-fail attempt to give his father a dignified farewell.
A frustrated writer, Daniel and his wife, Jane (British TV fixture Keeley Hawes, Mrs. MacFadyen in real life), still live in his parents’ home — much to Jane’s dismay. With his father’s death, however, Daniel is not sure what to do about his mother, Sandra (a suitably deadpan Jane Asher).
Especially with brother Robert (Rupert Graves, oozing smug self-satisfaction), a successful novelist, living the glitterati life in New York — and lording it over everybody, especially Daniel, when he deigns to return home for dear old dad’s send-off.
More family conflicts abound as their first cousin Martha (“Millions’ ” brisk Daisy Donovan) hopes to convince her stern doctor father (Peter Egan) that her fiance Simon (Texas-born Alan Tudyk, acquitting himself well as a true Brit) isn’t a hopeless loser.
That task becomes more difficult when Martha gives Simon what she thinks is a Valium — but turns out to be a trippy hallucinogen concocted by Martha’s brother Troy (Kris Marshall), a chemistry student who’s putting his schooling to good use by making designer drugs.
Adding to the potential delirium: a gauche hypochondriac (Andy Nyman); his even tackier friend (Ewen Bremner), who’s hoping to revive a nonexistent romance with Martha; and crabby, wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), whose tongue is as uncontrollable as his digestive tract.
To say nothing of the mournful little fellow (Peter Dinklage) no one recognizes, who’s come bearing a secret that could send the already frantic gathering into overdrive.
At least that’s the intent, as Oz puts his game cast through their paces, straining to keep predictability at bay — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — as the mayhem builds.
Try as it might — and my, how it tries — “Death at a Funeral” can’t always maintain its comedic momentum, delivering laughs in fits and starts.
Most of the laughs are of the chuckle-and-giggle variety, with a few — but not nearly enough — guffaws to enliven the proceedings.
But at least they prove that “Death at a Funeral” isn’t dead on arrival.CAROL CLINGMORE COLUMNS
movie: “Death at a Funeral”
running time: 90 minutes
rating: R; nudity, profanity, drug use
now playing: Colonnade, Orleans, Village Square