Lowdown: A feature length episode of Benny Hill.
The answer to the question "what is the quintessential English film" is not that trivial and would usually be answered by proposing examples rather than coming up with a proper definition for what makes a particular film feel British. Well, as examples go, Death at a Funeral pretty much jumps to the top of my list as the most British of the British films. It's not only because it's directed by a guy who is a Brit, even if we know him better as Fozzie Bear or Yoda (Frank Oz); it's mostly because Death at a Funeral has this typical British humor that you find in all the traditional British TV comedies, from Are You Being Served to Benny Hill. You know, that seemingly innocent yet naughty mix of slapstick, sexual innuendos, and the rest of the elements of British humor that I won't dare attempt to define.
The premises are very simple: the father of the family has just died and the family is organizing his funeral. The film focuses on the family members as they all gather for the ceremony.
On that simple base the film builds its tower of entanglements that eventually (but pretty quickly, given that Death at a Funeral is less than 90 minutes long) reaches a crescendo of laughs. The tower is a pretty unstable one: the plot is driven by a rather silly affair, film credibility wise, involving one of the characters taking recreational drugs instead of Valium, and then an ongoing repeat as the same pack of pills gets lost only to be found (and used) by the most unlikely character at the most inappropriate time. Quickly enough we discover that the family at hand is a rather dysfunctional one, which adds more fuel to the comedy fire but also provides some potential for catharsis at the film's end as all the world's problems are settled. So they are settled in haste, but who cares if one laughs all the way to settlement.
There's not much more to Death at a Funeral; there are no agendas and no sophisticated messages. It's just silly humor, but it works. A touch of silliness here, a bit of nudity there, and we've found ourselves happily laughing. Unlike most of the other films Oz has directed, Death at a Funeral is both unassuming and effective. Interestingly enough, it is effective despite the lack of star power: while most of the faces would be familiar to those familiar with English material, there are no outright stars at the funeral. Thus perhaps the main thing to take out of the film is just how much stars are overrated.
Best scene: As scenes go there's nothing in Death at a Funeral that would end up forever engraved in your brain; it's more the way the scenes interact with one another that creates the fun. Personally, I liked the scene in which a friend of the family has to push the old uncle on the wheelchair up a hill and sweat like a pig in order to get to the funeral, only to have his lazy friend end up taking all the credit for it. Let's say it was easy for me to identify with the bloke.
Technical assessment: Death at a funeral doesn't only feel like a lengthy episode of Benny Hill, it looks and sounds like a TV episode, too. That is, the picture is washed and lacks detail, and so is the sound; it's that feeling TV stuff gives you given its low budget compared to the cinema.
Overall: Funny yet innocently meaningless. 3 out of 5 stars.