Friday, March 6, 2009
Getting Stuck With The Problem
One night up in Westchester during the spring of 1992 a friend and I were the only audience members in attendance at the evening’s last showing of the film version of NOISES OFF. I had seen the show on Broadway a number of years earlier so I had an idea what to expect but while my friend wasn’t familiar with it partway through the first section he turned to me and said, “I’m not laughing, but I’m really enjoying this.” By a certain point when the film had clicked into high gear, he had started to laugh. Pretty soon we were both laughing and in near hysterics. There’s something to be said for laughing uproariously with a friend in an empty movie theater. The acclaimed play of the same name had lengthy runs both on the West End and Broadway—it’s even been revived in both places by now. The film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, on the other hand, received mixed-to-negative reviews, did no box office and doesn’t seem to be recalled by many more people than the ones in the Yonkers Central Plaza that night. But watching it now the film still has a large number of genuine laughs and even if it’s not as effective as the stage version—there’s no way it could be, really—I find it hard to believe that if I showed it to people right now that they wouldn’t laugh. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.
Maintaining the three-act structure from the stage version as best it can, NOISES OFF is a farce about a farce—a theatrical company rehearsing a broad, crass British comedy called NOTHING ON, touring with the show through various cities and hopefully on the way to Broadway. The cast of the film includes director Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine), the cast of the show (Carol Burnett, Denholm Elliott, Marilu Henner, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve and Nicollette Sheridan) and the backstage crew memebers (Julie Hagerty, Mark-Linn Baker). In the first section (Act One) we meet them as they suffer through a combination dress & tech rehearsal, nowhere near ready for the show that opens the next night, as we get to know each of them and their own small dramas as they intricately go through the show’s first act. During the next part (Act Two) we return to them on the afternoon of a disastrous matinee as we witness that same Act One mostly from the wings as their own lives are beginning to mirror the very show they’re putting on—the stage version turned the set entirely around to allow for this but the film version allows us to jump around more freely. When we return to them once again in the final section (Act Three) we once again view that same act one from the front as we view an even more disastrous performance as the backstage tensions have clearly boiled over and out onto the stage, making the written farce they’re playing into a genuine one.
The type of comedy in NOISES OFF seemed like a bit of an anachronism even when it was released and it almost seemed as if the movie was made because producer Frank Marshall owed old friend Bogdanovich a favor. There’s also the issue that this type of comedy just seems more at home in England than here in America. For obvious reasons it’s considerably more bittersweet to watch now considering how a few of the stars (John Ritter, Christopher Reeve and Denholm Elliott in his last film) have since left us prematurely and several of the other familiar faces are rarely if ever seen in films these days. Surprisingly, aside from Caine, the most visible actor in recent years from this film is Nicollette Sheridan, probably not what anyone expected to happen. It’s not meant to be at all backhanded to say that NOISES OFF works about as well as can be expected. The meta-nature of a play within a play is for the most part lost so what we have is a genuinely valiant effort by Bogdanovich to make this type of thing work on film. It’s something he’d done successfully before but it’s still an extremely difficult tone to bring off, at least partly because the very nature of the humor is so British—cleverly the actors in the show all speak with English accents that no one ever mentions but all of which are completely unconvincing. This type of comedy is probably an acquired taste but at the film’s best it works extremely well. Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is Bogdanovich’s confidence to let long stretches play out in single shots to keep that theatrical feel as much as humanly possible. This approach, which helps make it as faithful an adaptation as you could get, is something that was always part of the director’s aesthetic anyway. Taking this approach is especially rewarding when the action of the scene turns into something else mid-shot, like when the rehearsal is interrupted so everyone can very carefully look for a lost contact lens. Since this isn’t ROPE there’s a limit to how long this can be kept up, so the occasions where it cuts in for a close-up (particularly in the middle of the performance) are sometimes distracting and the frenetic pace seems slightly broken up by this. In an attempt to make those three acts hang together as a movie with a full narrative we are given a framing device of a nervous Caine wandering around Times Square during the show’s opening night on Broadway, narrating the flashbacks telling what led them to this point. The actor is actually pretty funny during these bits but it feels unnecessary and it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to recut the film to lose this stuff. It would still work and how invested are we in these people to need to know what happens to them? (Michael Caine wandering through early 90s Times Square, is kind of cool, though) Ultimately it’s a minor point considering how successful the movie is in its comic precision. This is particularly the case during the second act set in the wings as the play is going with the actors forced to act essentially in pantomime for long stretches (Eurocult fans will want to know about the prominence a bottle of J&B plays here). The first act we see of NOTHING ON is so intentionally broad that it’s very easy to pick up on how things go wrong when scenes are later repeated which leads to some very enjoyably delayed responses—as what happened with my friend so long ago the big laughs come later on, after they’ve been carefully set up. After the hysteria of the middle section, the play-within-a-play third act payoff gets a little lost in the translation making it possibly the least effective stretch, but I found myself still laughing nevertheless and ultimately it’s very satisfying.
Everyone in the cast is terrific and it’s a great amount of fun to watch these actors, all very funny and working well together, with some amusing connection to pick out like Caine and Reeve who previously co-starred in DEATHTRAP (another movie based on a play about plays) and Ritter who worked with the director twice before. There’s the genuine feeling that each one of them is energized by the chance to play something so fast and furious. As nuts as they are, the film clearly loves every single one of them and bits during the ‘first act’ like Marilu Henner pausing to mention how much she loves tech rehearsals because “everyone’s always so nice to everyone” and Michael Caine’s soliloquy about how theater as well as life boils down to “doors and sardines” give a likable shine to the whole thing as well as offering an appropriate pause before things begin racing to fast to stop. Caine, of course, is particularly good and Ritter’s old THREE’S COMPANY training obviously comes in handy at certain points. One spectacular pratfall he takes is mostly off screen but heard like in an old Warner Brothers cartoon and then later we get what must be an even more spectacular fall by him that we see in full view. Sheridan, who you’d expect to be the odd one out here, is note-perfect displaying terrific timing as ultra-flaky starlet Brooke Ashton--she gets extra points for playing much of her role in bra and panties without any apparent embarrassment and even takes her own huge fall in that skimpy outfit. L.B. Straten, then married to Bogdanovich, is seen briefly as a stagehand as is Zoe Cassavetes who later directed him as an actor in BROKEN ENGLISH.
I can accept an argument that there’s no way to correctly translate the NOISES OFF the play to film because of how it probably needs to be presented but it’s hard for me to argue with laughter. My own, anyway. There’s no great case to be made for this film except for the fact that I enjoy it and it’s a reminder that this type of comedy still could work if anyone wanted to try it. It’s hidden and will probably stay that way but even if I never get to convince anyone otherwise, at least I’ll still have that fond memory of all those years ago. And remember, when all around is strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned plate of sardines.
“Lloyd, let me just say one thing since we’ve stopped. I’ve worked with a lot of directors, Lloyd, some of them were geniuses, some of them were bastards. But I’ve never met one who was so totally and absolutely…I don’t know.”
“Thank you Gary, I’m very touched. Now will you get off the fucking stage.”