"Who is this man?," Aaron (Chris Rock) asks when a casket arrives at his home. The funeral director (Kevin Hart) plays it off as an existential question about Aaron's late father, but literally speaking, he really wants to know -- what is this other corpse doing at Daddy's funeral?
This is how Death at a Funeral opens. This is also how it opened in 2007, and when one wonders who is this man that would turn in an almost identical remake with an almost all-black cast in such short order, they'd be talking about Neil LaBute. He of the underrated Nurse Betty (co-starring Rock) and the overwhelming Wicker Man remake, LaBute once was (and still is, I suppose) a provocative playwright and filmmaker who must have entered into some prankster pact alongside the increasingly eccentric James Franco, a deal to set aside his infamous misanthropic tendencies and churn out a broad comedy as likely to earn chuckles as it does groans.
Because here it is.
The British stiff-upper-lips caricatures that populated the original are out, replaced by a grieving African-American family in Los Angeles that is all the same being blackmailed (African-American-mailed?) by a late lover of the deceased (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role). On top of that, Rock's character now has to contend with baby pressures from the missus (Regina Hall) and his demanding mama (Loretta Devine), professional envy with younger brother/successful author Ryan (Martin Lawrence), and overall money problems that certainly aren't helped by the appearance of a tiny stranger with some damning photographs.
That's not to mention Lawrence's character hitting on a barely legal acquaintance, an obnoxious friend (Tracy Morgan) dealing with some ornery family (Danny Glover), a cousin (Zoe Saldana) caught between a pushy ex (Luke Wilson) and an accidentally drugged-up fiance (James Marsden), a flock of people flipping "the bird," jokes about Shark Week and Amy Winehouse and Twitter and Facebook and Craigslist, and some rampant homophobia in the key of "DAAAMMMN!!!"
Glover even gets to recycle his famous line from Lethal Weapon about what he's too old for, before we're introduced to a feces gag that was the only off-color bit in the original and couldn't be played more to the rafters here. It's very indicative of the movie as a whole -- who needs the panic of poop on the hand when we can have poop on the mirror, in the face, in the mouth? And yet for every scene of Morgan and Glover attempting to out-shout one another or Devine crowing on about wanting a grandchild, we get a positively goofy Marsden stealing just as many scenes under the supposed influence as predecessor Alan Tudyk had in the original, with Columbus Short (he's Saldana's brother, the one with the drugs) supporting most of his scenes with a priceless slack-jawed or shocked reaction; despite his thriller-heavy resume, Short's got some comedy chops and relative restraint that I'd love to see more of.
And falling somewhere in between are Rock, Lawrence, Hall, Wilson and Saldana, all playing it relatively straight in the scheme of things. Granted, Rock and Lawrence aren't half as ribald as when they made their mark in stand-up, left to exchange groin hits and culture-reference jabs, but with Rock serving as producer and likely punching up Dean Craig's script, I can't help but think that the only thing stopping him from playing a more manic part was himself. As for LaBute, his work here is never beyond adequate. The camera work is restless enough to distract, intended to make everything chaotic seem that much more spontaneous and only settling down during the one Big Sentimental Moment, but he makes sure that every actor gets to play their scene to the hilt (maybe too much so) before shifting the focus elsewhere.
In the wake of what we'll just call the poop incident, Short's character tries to calm Morgan's by saying, "You're at a 10! I need you at a 2!" If you're looking for the 2 in terms of tone, rent the original. If you're looking for the 10, rent this one. And if you're looking for something in between, go for the Bollywood version. (Oh, and if you do, let me know if James Franco turns up in the credits. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised.)