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At this 'Funeral,' wrong body is only the beginning

From left: Andy Nyman, Rupert Graves, and Matthew Macfadyen ambush Peter Dinklage, an American visitor, in 'Death at a Funeral.' From left: Andy Nyman, Rupert Graves, and Matthew Macfadyen ambush Peter Dinklage, an American visitor, in "Death at a Funeral." (Keith Hamshere)

Why did Hollywood director Frank Oz cross the Atlantic to make "Death at a Funeral"? Because he knows that a comedy of embarrassment works better when those being mortified are British. The class rigidity, the earnestness, the accents -- all seize up with more interesting complications. The clichéd English urge to not make a fuss is so much easier to discombobulate than our broad, dull American certainty. (The Danes, meanwhile, turn the genre into agonized psychodrama -- to each their national metier.)

"Death at a Funeral" opens with a minor mishap -- the wrong body delivered to an at-home wake -- but the movie keeps piling on the disasters until every last lovely person has come unglued. As farces go, it's on the strained side, but the point is we don't get many farces these days, so finding one is like sighting a rare sort of booby. And when this booby takes flight, it's something to see.

About the only character not reduced to a hot lump of chagrin by the end is the deceased himself, the paterfamilias of a middle-sized, upper-middle-class clan. He has two surviving sons, one dutiful, one prodigal. The former is Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), married to Jane (Keeley Hawes) and desperate to buy a house and at last begin life away from his parents. The latter is Robert (Rupert Graves), a celebrated writer and Manhattanite who left Daniel holding the bag during their father's final years.

So there's plenty of resentment already boiling, to which the dead man's widow (Jane Asher) remains breezily ignorant. She's also in the dark about an aspect of her late husband's life that a mysterious, diminutive American visitor to the funeral (Peter Dinklage, of "The Station Agent") would like to make plain to the sons. And perhaps get paid for his trouble.

Fold in a cousin (Daisy Donovan) whose uptight fiance (Alan Tudyk) accidentally ingests the designer drugs her brother (Kris Marshall) has cooked up, a crotchety uncle (Peter Vaughan) with bowel problems, a hypochondriac (Andy Nyman), and a boor (Ewen Bremner). Stir, then simmer -- the recipe for these things is straightforward enough.

"Death at a Funeral" lets the pot sit for too long, though, and Macfadyen makes Daniel a sympathetic but bland hero. We find ourselves hoping Oz and his writer, Dean Craig, will circle back to the wildly tripping fiance, who the American comic actor Tudyk (Katherine Heigl's boss in "Knocked Up") plays with inventive glee. Donovan is fun, too, as the brusque girlfriend trying to reel him in off the roof -- he's naked by now, of course -- while coping with a disapproving papa (Peter Egan) and Bremner's persistent, lovelorn lout.

The laughs in a comedy of embarrassment arise as the characters desperately stuff jack-in-the-boxes back in their boxes while pretending nothing's wrong. Eventually all the lies collapse with a crash and everyone stands there with trousers down; that's the payoff, and Oz has made it work before in modest pleasures like "Bowfinger" and "In & Out."

"Death at a Funeral" isn't up to their level, but it's close enough, and it's certainly painless -- for us, at least. After a bit of a mid-movie muddle, the film finds its prime jack in Dinklage, whose size is ruthlessly exploited for laughs and whose character deserves whatever he gets. "Death" builds slowly and inexorably to a comic explosion that's just too good -- too insanely, impossibly mortifying -- to spoil here. Let's just say it dwarfs everything that has come before it.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Death at a Funeral

Directed by: Frank Oz

Written by: Dean Craig

Starring: Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Tudyk, Rupert Graves, Peter Dinklage, Jane Asher, Daisy Donovan

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge, West Newton, and suburbs

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: R (language and drug content)

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