Birth and death and everything in between

Two decent comedies open this week, one American and one British: that would be Knocked Up and Death at a Funeral respectively. American comedy is often seen as more physical and less verbal than British comedy, but that’s not the case here; in some ways, the latter is broader than the former.

Also, it should be noted that nowadays “physical comedy” means all-too-physical. It no longer signifies the sublime near-death experiences of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin juggling a globe of the world with his feet in The Great Dictator, or even Peter Sellers being swept to the floor by one in The Pink Panther. No, it means fart jokes.

It’s a relief, then, to see an American comedy that has become a huge sleeper hit (which is to say no one expected it to be a hit because it had no big stars or special effects) that is entirely free of flatulence — or slapstick for that matter. Knocked Up, in fact, feels quite real; it makes comedy out of the problems of ordinary people living ordinary lives and does it very well. It’s almost the most human movie of the year.

This is the story. Alison (Katherine Heigl) is young and pretty, with a brand new TV-presenter job. She goes out one night, gets tiddly and ends up in bed with a slacker called Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who is young but not pretty. It’s appropriate that he’s called Stone, not just because he’s what Americans call a “stoner”, but because he looks rather like a stone. And not even an attractive stone.

Imagine Alison’s surprise, then, to discover that she’s pregnant after this ill-advised bit of random rumpy-pumpy. Imagine Ben’s shock at finding that he’s about to become a dad, when he’s barely beyond babyhood himself — or at least he’s stuck in a perpetual smutty, druggy adolescence. But both of them take a deep breath and decide to get on with it and become parents, while, along the way, working out what their relationship might develop into.

That’s the gist of it and it’s a marvel that writer-director Judd Apatow manages to make this funny as well as touching without losing a sense of real people in a real world. The supporting material helps, with Alison’s sister’s family providing an amusing glimpse into the likely future she and Ben will share. Both Lesley Mann and Paul Ruud, as the sister and her husband, are excellent. Ben’s stoner buddies, who are working on their website about female movie-star flesh (how original!), provide some comedy of the slightly broader sort, but that works too.

By comparison, Death at a Funeral feels formal and stylised. Perhaps that is because the basic model is farce, though in this case it’s not about sex but embarrassment — and the various characters’ desperate (and of course futile) attempts to avoid it.

The embarrassment begins when the undertakers deliver the wrong coffin to the home where the funeral is to be held. The dead man’s son, Daniel (Matthew MacFayden), has to send the undertakers back to get the right coffin with the right corpse in it. That’s only the start, though, for Daniel’s more successful brother (Rupert Graves) is flying in from New York, an uptight lawyer relative has taken the wrong drugs, the chaplin’s in a dithering rush and there’s a mysterious dwarf hovering about the coffin …

Death at a Funeral was written especially for the screen by Dean Craig, but it feels a lot like an adaptation of a play. Most of it is set in the house where the funeral takes place, though one wouldn’t want to do without some very amusing moments that happen elsewhere. The point is that it feels rather theatrical. But that’s okay, because the laughs and the surprises do keep coming (even if some feel rather arbitrary).

And, moreover, if anyone was going to challenge the ruling American kings of the faecal joke for their crown, Death at a Funeral makes a damn good stab at it. This one goes way beyond a mere funny smell.

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