If, as the old actor’s maxim goes, dying is easy while comedy is hard, comedy about dying is the most high-wire act of all. Get the balance right and it’s intensely, savagely funny; when it doesn’t land, it’s a bit icky for all concerned. In 2007, British screenwriter Dean Craig mostly pulled off the trick with the self-explanatorily titled “Death at a Funeral,” which was broad and crass but frequently very funny indeed — sufficiently so for Craig to pen an inferior U.S. remake three years later. Now directing as well as writing, he attempts a similar coup with frantic coffin-chasing farce “The Estate,” getting ahead of the game by setting it in the States to begin with. This time, the results fall largely flat.
On the face of it, it’s hard to see why. The premise — hard-up chancers attempt to scrap and claw their way into a dying millionaire’s inheritance — is old as the hills, but for a reason, as it’s usually good for some nasty laughs. And Craig has assembled a cast of pros who know their way around black humor and bad taste, with Toni Collette, Anna Faris and Kathleen Turner gamely leading the way. But comedy, fearsomely precise as it can be, isn’t math: Minutes into “The Estate,” after multiple one-liners have landed like pebbles on wet sand, we sense it may be less than the sum of its parts. And while later pivots into gross-out territory are a little gutsier, Craig’s latest — slipping into theaters after last month’s quiet premiere at the London Film Festival — never finds a slick comic groove.
After an old-school animated credit sequence sets a jaunty, japey tone, the story opens on a glummer note. In a drab corner of New Orleans, sadsack divorcee Macey (Collette) licks her wounds after a failed meeting with a loan manager; arriving tardily on the scene is her flaky sister Savanna (Faris), not someone who’d be much help talking business anyway. At stake is the ailing diner they jointly manage, once the pride of their late father. If they can’t get their hands on a vast wad of cash soon, it’ll be history too.
Reluctantly, they conclude that their only hope lies with their exceedingly wealthy Aunt Hilda (Turner) — or more specifically, in the heirless old woman’s terminal cancer diagnosis. That she’s bitterly estranged from her hard-up nieces and their mother is one obstacle; that their obsequious and considerably more beloved cousin Beatrice (Rosemarie Dewitt) has recently moved into Hilda’s roomy mansion to care for her is another. Cue an all-out charm offensive from two women to whom charm doesn’t quite come naturally: Craig’s script rather takes it on faith that we should be rooting for the two sisters at its center, though if they’re more likable than Dewitt’s grasping harridan or Turner’s venomous misanthrope, it’s only by fine degrees.
At least they’re all a step up from a fourth cousin, Porsche-driving skeeze Richard (a leering David Duchovny), who’s granted little purpose in proceedings beyond making incestuous overtures to Macey. “We’ve always had a thing,” he tells her. “That thing being that we’re cousins,” she huffs in response —which is about as sharp as the dialogue gets. Any high-ground differentiations between the principals are pretty much erased, meanwhile, in their ensuing competition to win Hilda’s favor, particularly when their collective focus turns to getting their aunt laid on her deathbed. Sex offenders, honey-trapping schemes and a grisly prosthetic penis all play a part in the hijinks, yet even as the rudeness escalates, the pace stays sluggish, with more lulls than a 95-minute runtime should really permit.
Any flickers of hilarity here are largely in incidental details of performance: Collette’s queasily aghast face, for example, when spontaneously called upon to empty a colostomy bag, or the practically Pazuzu-like contempt in Turner’s characteristically throaty line deliveries. It’s been too long since we saw her — or, for that matter, the recently TV-oriented Faris — in a big-screen comedy of any note at all, and “The Estate” gains most of its pleasures from the mere presence of its stars, who do their best to spar as fast and as far as the strangely low-energy writing allows. But their effort is all too palpably felt: In “The Estate,” dying and comedy alike feel like hard work.
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