Sunday 17 July 2022

Movie Review: Noises Off... (1992)

A comedy about everything that can wrong in the world of theatre, Noises Off... competently adapts the stage show despite lacking the inherently essential on-the-edge energy.

In New York, theatre writer and director Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) is worried about the Broadway opening of his latest farce Nothing On. In flashbacks, he recalls the show's origins. Months earlier, the final rehearsal before opening night in Des Moines, Iowa, reveals an utter lack of readiness, but the show somehow succeeds, leading to a national tour. 

Nothing On revolves around two amorous couples (John Ritter and Nicollette Sheridan; Christopher Reeve and Marilu Henner) making their way surreptitiously to a vacation house where housekeeper Dotty (Carol Burnett) believes she is alone and is just trying to watch television and eat a sardine dinner. A bumbling burglar (Denholm Elliott) adds to the hilarity. 

At a Florida performance, romantic rivalries among the cast members play out backstage as the play is performed. Later in Cleveland, a show goes completely off the rails due to jealousies and apathy. Nevertheless, the play makes it to Broadway, where Lloyd awaits the audience reaction.

An adaptation of the Michael Frayn play written for the screen by Marty Kaplan and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Noises Off... is a valiant attempt to translate a quintessential stage experience to film. The play is about the stage and for the stage, celebrating real-time tension where every mishap is live, on full view, and has to be navigated on the spot. 

Film is a much more forgiving medium. Multiple camera angles, editing, and the separation between audience and performers rob the essence out of this material. Bogdanovich compensates with madcap pacing, breathless movement, attention to every detail, and smooth transitions to maximize the farce intentions, but sacrifices basics like character evolutions and depth. The lack of immediacy also adds tedium to the repetition, since the same material is viewed three times, albeit from backstage for the middle, and funniest, act. 

The ensemble cast members generally do well, matching over-acting dopiness with on-stage persona theatricality for maximum laughs. John Ritter's character is incapable of making any coherent points but insists on trying; Christopher Reeve is insecure and knows it; Denholm Elliott is magnetically attracted to alcohol; and Nicollette Sheridan aces the prototypical dumb blonde and spends most of the movie in her lingerie. 

Carol Burnett is comfortable as the crotchety housekeeper Dotty, but her obsession with sardines gets tired well before the final curtain. Marilu Henner makes less of an impression while Julie Hagerty and Mark Linn-Baker round out the cast. Overseeing them all is Michael Caine, and his role is just too easy as the exasperated writer and director attempting to herd his talent-challenged cast and crew. 

Reeve developing a nose bleed at the slightest sign of conflict and Sheridan losing her contact lens at the most inopportune moments are effective go-to comic landings. Noises Off... misses the thrill of the stage, but still finds flashes of wackiness.

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