Farce Populi

This week, The New York Times ran a piece about the all-African American remake of the all-British farce, Death at a Funeral. Will it work?

Farce, like the human mind, needs repression to survive; it’s the coiled spring before it’s sprung. That’s why the British, and in the golden days of Feydeau, the French, do/did it better than anyone else. There was much to hide; there were appearances to keep up. But in here in America, where expression and individuality are points of national pride, and one film comedy after the next sees the ante upped on vulgarity, containment looks less like a virtue than a sin. We like to get things off our chest. Freud always liked that about us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some highly vulnerable, highly fulfilling comedies, like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Cassavetes’s Husbands (to name only two), feature the distinctly American quality of earnest, open expression. But one has to wonder, aren’t we ashamed of something? Don’t we have back boudoirs, dark, guilt-ridden consciousnesses that need liberating?

Few contemporary American writers and directors, with the notable exception of David Mamet, have acknowledged the embarrassing reality of American secrecy; that we, like the British, like every culture on earth, are still very much afraid of very much. Mamet’s film State and Main, and his plays November and Romance – the greatest farce American theater has produced in my lifetime – are predicated on political and commercial duplicity, and what could be more patriotic than that? These aren’t the bedroomdoorslammers of Billy Wilder – just what the doctor ordered for fifties America, when the country was fraught with sexual repression –but the modern equivalent, perfect for today’s America, a country enmeshed in perpetual masquerade – Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot – from sea to shining sea.

The original version of Death and a Funeral understood this notion completely. Frank Oz’s film combined the British love of propriety with the staunch formality of mourning – the perfect spring, double coiled – and pulled that bad boy back, back, way back to its breaking point. Oh, the release! The release! But what will happen in the new Chris Rock version, when the British funeral becomes an African-American one?

It’s an exciting idea. Has there been an all-black farce? Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor only dabbled in the form; Trading Places and Silver Streak are straight-ahead comedies with the requisite farcical outbursts, and they are as much about Dan Ackroyd and Gene Wilder as they are about Murphy and Pryor. The new Death at a Funeral is a whole new thing entirely.

What will an all-black farce even look like? How will the African-American brand of mainstream comedy, which relies on sexual forthrightness and a kind of flamboyant grandeur, be expanded to include the precepts of containment? I for one am excited to find out.

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