June 19, 2005

MOVIES: Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich, 1992)

In this film version of Michael Frayn's brilliant stage farce, we are watching a troupe of actors perform Nothing On, a typical British bedroom farce with lots of closing doors and people just missing one another, and we see the first act of that play three times. The first time, we're watching the final dress rehearsal, which isn't going all that well, but the cast manages to get through it. The second time through is seen from backstage, and takes place several weeks into the play's tour, by which time the romantic entanglements and jealousies among the cast have begun to take their toll on the play. The third time we see the play, we're watching from the audience again, and it's now late in the tour; by this time, the actors are actively working to sabotage one another.

The problem with the movie, and I think it's an insurmountable one, is that farce belongs on stage; the thrill of watching all of those doors closing and opening with perfect timing, the nervous fear that something might go horribly wrong -- that's the whole point of farce. And while Bogdanovich shoots as much as possible in long takes in an attempt to sustain that tension, it's just not the same on film, where we know that if something goes wrong, they can just do a retake. (A somewhat lesser problem is the unnecessary addition of a framing voice-over from Michael Caine, who plays the director of Nothing On.)

Still, if you must film this play, you couldn't ask for a better cast than this: Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, John Ritter (who does a spectacular pratfall down a flight of stairs), Christopher Reeve, Denholm Elliott, Mark Linn-Baker, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, and Nicolette Sheridan. The second "backstage" act, performed largely in silence (so that they won't be heard by the audience), is especially well done, and features some great physical shtick involving the effort to keep Elliott from getting his hands on a bottle of whiskey. Seeing Noises Off on stage would of course be preferable, but if that's not an option, this is a reasonably entertaining version of the play.

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