Over Sly and the Family Stone singing “You don’t have to die to live,” pallbearers deliver an incredibly ornate he-man sized coffin to a stately home in Los Angeles. Alas, as Aaron (Chris Rock) discovers, the Chinese man in the coffin is not his father and the absent-minded funeral director is ordered to come back with the correct body. Not a good beginning for a funeral, that’s for sure!
Aaron, miserable in his day job as a tax consultant, has always wanted to be a writer, but he’s been too insecure to show his writing to anybody. Today he’s especially anxious- as the oldest brother, he has to deliver the eulogy and he’s terrified his words will be found insufficient by everybody, especially by his crass, no-talent younger brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who, as cruel fate would have it, is a bestselling author.
Ruining his memorization of the eulogy is his lovely wife Michelle (Regina Hall). At age 37, her biological clock is running amok and she wants Aaron to engage in a quick canoodle right now. Adding to Michelle’s fertility woes is her nagging mother-in-law, grieving widow Cynthia (Loretta Devine). “You can’t understand death,” Cynthia digs at the childless Michelle, “until you’ve given life.”
The other guests trickle in. There’s gorgeous niece Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and her fiancé Oscar (James Marsden), a sweet, white school teacher who’s sweaty nervous because he knows Elaine’s domineering father hates him. To calm him, Elaine gives him a pill from a bottle labeled valium. Alas, it’s not valium, as we will soon learn. Elaine’s annoying former boyfriend Derek (Luke Wilson) and family friend Norman (Tracy Morgan), a motormouth hypochondriac, have picked up cantankerous Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and hauled him and his wheelchair into the funeral.
Oddly, this supposedly typical upper middle class African American family has no children running around and no elderly grandparents nodding off, and there’s not even a yapping dog to add notes of reality, much less a few comedy bites. Worse, unlike real life in such families, the women play minor roles. Director Neal LaBute (The Wicker Man), who Americanized this film almost scene by scene from the 2007 British original, could easily have made the film more relevant by giving parity to the female actors.
The last guest to arrive is a little person named Frank (Peter Dinklage), who no one has ever seen before. How does this white man know the dearly departed Daddy, and why does he pull those horrifying photographs out of the pocket in his black leather jacket? Like a vase of funeral flowers with a hole in it, the family secrets start leaking out. And so does blackmail, murder, way too much bathroom humor and general mayhem.
Chris Rock holds the movie together with his solid persona, but he doesn’t make much laughter. Martin Lawrence plays a one-note smarmy cad, who’s not funny either. The comedy in the film, and there is quite a bit, comes from the outrageous situations and the anticipation of ultimate chaos with the coffin. In the film’s biggest surprise, it’s a white actor not known for his comic talents who rushes to fill the void left by the seasoned pros.
Hapless Oscar finally feels the effects of the hallucinogen he swallowed earlier. He wanders around the garden, cuddling with statues, tripping out on the beauteous greenery. Indoors, when the self-righteous preacher begins the service, Oscar is sure he sees the coffin move. “Someone is alive in the coffin!” he runs off screaming. By the time he ends up on the roof, naked as a jaybird and laughing his head off, entertaining the crowd below with his cute behind, James Marsden has, hands-down, stolen the movie from the bigger name comic stars.
Being a comedy, everybody’s happy in the end, apologies accepted, bitter rivalries buried for a while. As the film points out, it’s true, and too bad, that “Somebody has to die to get the family together.”