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Now on DVD: "Death at a Funeral" (Neil LaBute, 2010)

Apart from two or three minutes near the beginning where the dialogue has been timed down to the nanosecond, you'd never guess that Neil LaBute had directed Death at a Funeral.  This isn't an insult, necessarily.  While I found the movie lazy on the whole, I didn't find it objectionable.  It's the sort of casually enjoyable movie you wouldn't mind watching on late-night cable; the sort that seems to have been made the way businessmen attend a corporate retreat.  If there's an auteurist component to be found, it's more in the very fact that LaBute directed it than in any themes he discovers therein.

LaBute's great contribution to U.S. literature is his ability to dramatize how the culture has internalized the amorality of late capitalism.  He's often deemed a misanthrope because of the cruelty of his characters; but that fails to recognize their cruelty as the product of systemic problems.  Characters take advantage of each other constantly in his plays—or else dismiss each other callously—because they no longer see any alternative to naked self-interest.  LaBute locates the root of the problem most convincingly in the business culture, which is why his work set among the professional class—the film In the Company of Men (1997), the plays Fat Pig (2004) and bash (1999)—tend to be his most unsettling. But his plays about lower-middle-class characters (namely, In a Dark, Dark House [2007] and The Distance from Here [2002] perhaps his most reviled theatrical work) envision a culture without unity or even the most basic human trust. The myth of the lone entrepreneur has its repercussions in mass layoffs; the cult around many celebrities spawns distorted standards for beauty among their admirers: In both cases, a very common definition of success requires that so many people be considered expendable.

Since the film version of The Shape of Things (his last film of his own material and based on what I'd consider his worst play), LaBute's relationship to cinema has been like his characters' relationships to one other.  He approaches the project without emotional investment, thinking only what he can get out of it professionally, and keeps his true feelings secret.  By making crap that's lucrative, Labute can write plays without caring whether they're performed on Broadway (even though his last one, Reasons to be Pretty, was).  Still, it's unfortunate that he's no longer interested in making films that advance the ideas he’s explored on the stage, reviving the kind of theatrical cinema that America made on a semi-regular basis in the 1970s (e.g., Carnal KnowledgeInserts, the American Film Theater project).

LaBute's shortcoming as a filmmaker—at least when he was directing his own material—was that he never developed an visual aesthetic to match his finely-honed language.  In the Company of Men got to be a great film because it was made for so little: It subcontracted all its mise-en-scene to the tremendous cast.  Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) tried for something more ambitious by framing generic interiors in Scope with a lot of white space, and The Shape of Things (2003) did the same thing with exteriors; but both approaches felt like pretense.

Had Labute continued adapting his plays as they made better, more unsettling use of confined theatrical spaces, he could have gotten past the affect and created a films of terrifying intimacy. (I’m thinking of Cocteau’s Les parents terribles, Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy WhoreBitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Querelle.) The Mercy Seat (2002) or In a Dark, Dark House seem the best contenders, as they whittle down LaBute's great theme to the most personal exchanges and employ the most cutting dialogue in his body of work. Though I prefer Fat Pig to either of these, I'm afraid its short-scene structure would end up looking too much like television, the wayShape of Things did.  Perhaps if he edited it more choppily, cutting the dialogue for maximum impact, it could get under your skin as well as it did in the theater, but I think I may be asking for too much.

At present, LaBute splits his time between playing Serious Playwright and Movie Director for Hire, with virtually no overlap between the roles.  Tellingly, his last two features (or, more fittingly, assignments) are set among characters wealthier than almost any in his plays.  Though Samuel L. Jackson’s cop in Lakeview Terrace (2008) is limited by bigotry and every character in Death at a Funeral can be almost terminally stupid, they’re free to make many choices (concerning career, familial obligations, place of residence) that LaBute’s other subjects are not. The fact that the extended family of Death at a Funeral belongs to the relatively small world of the black upper-middle-class has less bearing on the film than their general material comfort. (Little of Labute’s insight from This is How it Goes [2005], his play about U.S. race relations, is evident here.)

The lack of heavy societal forces makes Death at a Funeral ripe for a good, traditional farce.  The major conflicts include Aaron’s (Chris Rock) jealousy of his brother’s (Martin Lawrence) success as a writer, their cousin’s fear that her father doesn’t like her fiance, and the news that their father—for whom the funeral is for—was a closeted homosexual.  And there’s potential in the construction for LaBute to achieve some of his best film work. Classical farce remains a major influence on his plays, which grant as much weight to coincidence and inflexible social roles as Feydeau’s. (It may be why LaBute’s writing works so much better on the stage, where the heightened artificiality enhances, rather than detracts from the effect.)

Unfortunately, a lot of farce here is performed and cut together slackly when it should be speeding up. Working with a gifted cast—Besides Rock and Lawrence, it includes Tracy Morgan, Peter Dinklage and Danny Glover—LaBute was clearly inspired to let his actors improvise; but so many of the ad-libbed material proves distracting because LaBute cuts it into the film without bothering to match it with shots around it. In the end, the film is no better than the standard Hollywood comedy of recent years, failing in the most basic areas of pacing, technical competency, or characterization. For so much of the schtick to work—Luke Wilson’s stuck-in-the-past ex-boyfriend, for instance—otherwise smart characters have to periodically become idiots so as to give really bad advice or believe bald-faced lies.

Setting aside such issues—as well as the patronizing, this-is-how-you-should-feel music cues—the movie can be pretty funny. Most of the actors rose to popularity through television, and they know how to entertain through bite-sized, autonomous moments, regardless of who’s directing them. (It should be noted that most of the performances survive the bad editing.) When I saw Death at a Funeral at my neighborhood movie house—Chicago’s only remaining second-run theater and a popular hang-out for working-class families—the audience seemed consistently amused. None of them were likely familiar with LaBute’s plays, which tend to be staged by companies several miles north and east of their part of town. And while the movie didn’t seem to exert much effort to entertain, neither did it insult their intelligence. In a passable, unserious way—which, as LaBute’s plays teach us, demonstrate that this is how our culture betrays its most engrained values—Death at a Funeral got them to laugh at death, jealousy, shit, homosexuality and social-climbing, because these things are ultimately trivial when compared to the demands of being an open, sympathetic human being. (Spoiler alert: The characters overcome all the farcical complications by shrugging them off and learning to forgive one another.) There’s nothing in this to suggest the hidden influence of LaBute the Serious Playwright. Rather, it’s a testament to his mark on contemporary letters that one can extract his Moral from almost any bit of cultural activity.

Thanks for the article Ben. I appreciate your approach to looking at LaBute’s career as a writer/director. Sadly, my experience of his films and plays is too limited to express any agreement or disagreement with your article beyond the fact I think it is one of the better summations of his work I have read in that it deals with him as a whole rather than compartmentalizing his different areas of interest. Thanks!
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Greg. LaBute is one of the active U.S. dramatists I admire most and, thankfully, living in Chicago has allowed me to see numerous outstanding productions of his work. (I’m especially grateful to those put on by the Profiles Theatre Company.) Like David Mamet—to whom he’s often compared—I find that LaBute’s plays can be terribly flat when read though electrifying on stage. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend picking any of them up… though Bash, which is a collection of monologues, may fare better than the others.
The first thing I ever picked up by Labute was Bash. I don’t know why I bought it but I was on a day trip to Oxford, MS and by the time I was back in Memphis I had finished it. I like to read Labute’s body of work in stage and cinema as some kind of half-ass commentary on the difference RIGHT NOW in AMERICA between the two forms. We (the audience) obviously have different expectations/place different limitations on each, and Labute’s consideration of these differences must make an impression on the way he approaches working in each form. That’s the only way I can explain things like Wicker Man (which he didn’t write) and Bash being from the same artist. I consider “Your Friends & Neighbors” his most satisfying work to date, and the truest to the spirit of his stagework, which came right on the heels of his success with “In The Company of Men”. I won’t pretend to know how he funded either of these films but I have to think he had a little more of a “green light” creatively after “In The Company of Men” than anything else he’s done. I also suspect he is handicapped by the ongoing collaborative nature of film. Even though I don’t know how to follow up on this statement, I feel very strongly about it. Thanks for writing Ben!

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