What with the Oscars (more on that later), I haven’t had time to see much of this week’s releases. I did see The Darjeeling Limited already, but the only other two I’ve seen are a British comedy directed by an American, and a British miniseries that’s being remade as a Hollywood movie.
There are a couple of reasons why a straight-out farce (as opposed to farcical comedy, which can be different) seems so old-fashioned right now. For one thing, it depends mostly on plot, where many of the most popular comedies these days depend on getting their laughs first, and can often have indifferent plots. Just as important, however, is while today’s comedies seemed determined to push the envelope and be proud of it, farces are still dependant on their being a vein of normalcy over the proceedings that characters at least pretend to take seriously. Finally, even when a farce works, today it doesn’t seem to resonate like it used to. Still, they can be agreeable if you’re in the right mood, and Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral falls into this category.
Of course, a funeral is an ideal place to set a farce, since everyone is trying to keep up the decorum even more so than usual. Add the fact this takes place in Britain, where the stereotype of a stiff upper lip is a special requirement, and you’re in even more fertile territory. Oz and writer Dean Craig aren’t out to reinvent the wheel here, so this tale of struggling writer Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) trying to keep the dignity of his father’s funeral intact despite some drug related shenanigans and family secrets that come out hits predictable, if amusing, notes. Some are not so amusing – as a lout trying to woo a woman he had a one-night stand with, Ewan Bremmer is one-note, as is Peter Vaughan as an old coot. And while the conflict between Daniel and his much more successful brother Robert (Rupert Graves) is well developed, the rest of the family dynamics aren’t drawn out so deftly. Still, MacFadyen plays it straight well, and Oz lets two performers shine without overwhelming the proceedings. Alan Tudyk, best known to many as Wash from Firefly and Serenity, plays the fiancée of Daniel’s sister, and his reaction to taking the wrong drug provides some of the best gags of the movie. And casting Peter Dinklage as the unknown gay lover of Daniel’s father may seem like a bit of stunt casting, but Dinklage makes it work. At the very least, Death at a Funeral marks a return to form for Oz after the misfire of his Stepford Wives remake.
Sometime next year, we’ll get to see a Hollywood version of the British miniseries State of Play, and judging by the original, that film’s got a lot to live up to. Written by Paul Abbott (Touching Evil), the six-part series follows an investigation into two deaths that seem unrelated at first – Sonia Baker, a research assistant for MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) who fell under a subway train, and Kelvin Stagg, a teen who was killed in what seems at first to be a drug-related hit. Pursuing the story is Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), a reporter for The Herald who used to be Collins’ campaign manager. McCaffrey of course is biased towards wanting to help Collins, but things start happening with the story, such as Collins having an affair with Baker, Baker’s death not being a suicide but a professional hit done by the same person who killed Stagg, and all of this possibly relating to Collins’ position in government. Abbott and director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) keep the six hours moving quickly, yet allow time for character development and humor, particularly with Dominic (Marc Warren), whose relationship with Sonia hides a deeper secret, and Cal’s editor Cameron (Bill Nighy), who’s a British version of Ben Bradlee, or at least as portrayed in All the President’s Men (one could argue the series is in fact a British version of that movie). Nighy in particular is the best thing about the series. He underplays smoothly, and gives the impression of someone who supports his staff, gently but firmly pushes them to do good work (this isn’t a Fleet Street paper), and isn’t above using humor to make his point (when Cal approaches him for money for what turns out to be getting evidence tying Baker and Stagg together, Cameron grants it with the caveat, “If it’s for a prostitute, it’s coming out of your wages”).
Given that it’s a police investigation as well, I wish we had seen more of them, but all of the characters are drawn well, so that there’s no good or bad in any of them – even a government official who pressures Collins has his human side, as does an oil executive, while Cal ends up getting involved with Collins’ wife Anna (Polly Walker). I was hesitant about that storyline, even if I do like watching Polly Walker naked, because at first it seemed like a love story thrown in just to have a love story, but it ends up being just as complicated as everything else in the story, and ends in a satisfying way, just like everything else here. And while Nighy and Walker may be the big names here (along with Kelly Macdonald and James McAvoy as fellow reporters), Morrissey (best known here for his turn on PBS’ Bleak House) and Simm (Life on Mars) are both terrific as well. Make sure you set aside six hours to watch this.
Given the fact Sunday's Oscar show was the lowest-rated ever, there's more Monday-morning quarterbacking than ever before as to how to overhaul the show. Given the fact none of these tentpole shows do as well as they used to, except for a shrinking niche audience, I don't what major overhaul can be done to turn things around, but I do agree with Jeffrey Wells when he says Gil Cates needs to go, and the quicker the better. Whatever you think of the movies that came out last year, his sensibility is of a bygone time, and his middle-of-the-road presentations seem more creaky than ever. The writer's strike can be blamed for the writing of the show, but the over-reliance on montages and the bland presentation of almost everything else can be squarely laid at Cates' door. Let him have an Honorary Oscar, retire him to pasture, and bring someone else in.
I am also tired of hearing of everyone making a big deal of how all four acting winners this year were non-Americans as if it was a big deal. What is this, the 1940's? We should be celebrating the fact such diverse performers won (even if I wasn't rooting for Marion Cotillard), rather than acting as if their being foreign is a sign of "otherness." This isn't a sign of American actors not being good enough - the standard of acting is and has been at a premium everywhere - but simply of the Academy voters choosing others. Also, one of the reasons given for the broadcast's low ratings is how the movies being recognized aren't the popular ones. Might it have to do with fact that, Bourne Ultimatum and Knocked Up aside (maybe a few others), most of the tentpole movies of the last few years have not tried to break any artistic ground, but have simply been made for the money. Oscars aren't supposed to be about that.