After detours into heist territory (The Score) and muddled science-fiction satire (The Stepford Wives), Frank Oz returns semi-triumphantly to gently bent comedy with Death At A Funeral, a featherweight British romp that fuses dark humor with manic farce. After wrestling with Marlon Brando's legendary ego in The Score and the ever-spiraling budget of Stepford Wives, it must have been a relief for Oz to work on a refreshingly small, self-contained low-budget comedy in which Dean Craig's clever script is the primary attraction and scene-stealer Peter Dinklage is the biggest star, to American audiences at least.
Oz's ingratiatingly modest new comedy centers on the funeral of a British patriarch, which brings together a wide cross-section of friends and family. The funeral promises to be emotional and tense under the best of circumstances, but two unforeseen variables make things particularly haywire. Mysterious stranger Dinklage shows up and attempts to blackmail the family of the deceased with information about his secret gay life. In a related subplot, a tense, mild-mannered fiancé eager to be accepted by his family-to-be accidentally takes a homemade hallucinogen that causes him to doff his clothes and depart from his senses.
Dinklage is known for the quiet dignity and poise he displayed in The Station Agent, but in his defining moment here, he finally gets a red-eyed, deranged, Sinful Dwarf-style freak-out that's as hilarious as it is undignified. Though Oz remains a skilled hand at guiding this kind of busy comedy, the tone eventually gets away from him, growing alternately too cartoony or sappy. The stoned-naked-square subplot takes up far too much screen time, and the ending tidies things up far too neatly. After a gradually escalating series of slapstick shenanigans and rollicking gallows humor, the laughter ceases: Conflicts get resolved, relationships get strengthened, and everyone goes home wiser and wearier. Still, though it grows silly and sentimental, Funeral scores enough big laughs to make its shortcomings eminently forgivable.