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Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence upstaged in “Death at a Funeral”


Death at a Funeral (**1/2 out of 4)
Someone needs to get James Marsden his own comedy. He’s seriously funny. Sure, he showed glimpses of personality as variety show host Corny Collins in Adam Shankman’s “Hairspray.” And his Prince Edward helped make “Enchanted” feel … well, enchanted.

But would you have guessed Marsden would outright steal scenes away from Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Keith David and other very talented comedians as he does during Neil LaBute’s “Death at a Funeral” remake? His performance as a nervous fiancée tripping on a hallucinogenic relies on facial maneuverings, surprised reactions, fearless physical antics and the knowledge of when to underplay the joke. It could have been very broad, but Marsden keeps it in check … which somehow makes it feel overblown. It’s a high-wire act, and he walks it well. “Funeral” will serve as his sizzle reel the next time he auditions for his own comedic franchise. A wise studio executive would sign him before this weekend’s box office results drive up his asking price.

The rest of “Funeral” is consistently amusing but rarely laugh-out-loud funny — a bit of a disappointment considering the comedic potential of this cast. Part of the problem is that all of this has been done before, and recently. LaBute’s “Funeral” is a near shot-for-shot remake of a dark British comedy that came out in 2007. Rock’s character, Aaron, has to juggle an army of cartoonish personalities during his father’s funeral. There’s Ryan (Lawrence), his young and far-more-successful brother who is the family’s prodigal son. There’s mean Uncle Russell (Danny Glover), who makes it his business to abuse his obedient handler, Norman (Morgan). And there’s Frank (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the 2007 original), who has compromising photos of Aaron’s father which he wants to use as blackmail.

“Funeral” has some of the same issues that derailed “Harlem Nights,” Eddie Murphy’s lone directing credit that attracted comedic heavyweights Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Arsenio Hall, but never figured out how best to use them. “Funeral” handcuffs Rock to the straight-man role, neutering his ability to be funny. Lawrence’s character is defined by his clichés, while Morgan stoops to a disgusting (but admittedly hilarious) toilet joke to score the film’s biggest laugh.

In between the cracks lurks Marsden, who snatches laughs from thin air while his co-stars can only stand around and watch. When it comes to “Death,” Marsden kills.

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