By all accounts hilarious onstage, Michael Frayn's backstage farce receives a less-than-brilliant screen translation in NOISES OFF, a Touchstone production which boasts three terrific comic set-pieces with nothing to support them.
What plot there is roughly revolves around the production of a door-slamming bedroom stage farce whose chief attraction seems to be Nicollette Sheridan (TV's "Knots Landing") as a sexy blonde ingenue who spends most of the play scampering around in her brief, frilly underwear. With six months on
the road to iron out the bugs before the show is scheduled to reach Broadway, director Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) instead is horrified to find the show actually getting worse as time goes on. The three set-pieces consist of the final dress rehearsal before the play opens in Des Moines; a
disastrous opening night in Miami; and a dismal collapse onstage in Cleveland. What causes the downward spiral is the increasingly knotty relationships developing behind the scenes.
Fellowes has recently switched his romantic attentions from stage manager Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty) to his sexy leading lady, Brooke Ashton (Sheridan), without knowing that Poppy is pregnant. Meanwhile, leading man Garry Lejeune (John Ritter) is wearing horns because the object of his
affections, middle-aged character actress Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), seems to have defected to dashing second lead Frederick Dallas (Christopher Reeve). To compound his problems, Fellowes is required to leave the company for long stretches to nurse a production of Hamlet in New York. Also, he,
along with the rest of the cast, including female second lead Belinda Blair (Marilu Henner, who seems to fade into the scenery completely), has to keep a close eye on aging character actor Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott), who likes his liquor and has a tendency to forget his cues.
The film actually opens with Caine in a voiceover prologue on the play's Broadway opening night, explaining what the film is all about. It helps, but it doesn't really fill in the gaps. It's probably a sign of trouble early on in the dress rehearsal, the film's actual first scene, that the play
within the play, as artfully terrible as it is, is actually more entertaining and engaging than the main plot and subplots involving the actors and director. And that's no mean feat, considering the calibre of talent that has been assembled for this film. Nevertheless, even in the dress rehearsal,
the interruptions that are supposed to introduce the characters and relationships and get the film underway wind up being as much a source of annoyance and exasperation to viewers as they are to Fellowes. It thus becomes dispiriting to see the play's performance deteriorate as the film goes on,
especially since neither the offstage characters nor their relationships get more interesting as time passes.
Somebody at some point in the production must have sensed the problem. NOISES OFF's credits include "additional editing," usually a dead giveaway of postproduction tinkering, and the film does seem to have been ruthlessly trimmed of any sense of the characters' lives backstage and reduced to the
three play stagings, with just enough connecting material to make it seem like a movie. What's left, at least, plays to director Peter Bogdanovich's strengths as a director of physical comedy. He was, after all, the man who tried, and almost succeeded, in singlehandedly restoring a Hawksian
crispness and physical gracefulness to screen comedy in films like WHAT'S UP DOC? and PAPER MOON.
Here the "Bogdanovich touch" surfaces in dribs and drabs. The dress rehearsal is staged with a marvelous grace and exhilarating sense of joy in its feeling for the professionalism of the players. The second staging, in Des Moines, focuses on backstage antics that, at odd moments, reach a giddy
surrealism, especially when Elliott (A PRIVATE FUNCTION, A ROOM WITH A VIEW), who's never had much of a reputation before as an accomplished farceur, comes to the fore. But precision and energy are not enough. As it becomes increasingly obvious that NOISES OFF never is going to come to life, the
physical humor becomes less involving. By the Cleveland staging, when the show completely falls apart, it becomes downright nasty and painful to watch. Then there's the tacked-on, completely implausible, "upbeat" ending, which only further highlights the film's flaws.
Like any good farce, NOISES OFF is essentially dark in its view of human nature and is therefore wildly at odds with the fluffy, feelgood trend prevalent in the current crop of mainstream Hollywood comedies. As a result, the only truly amazing aspect about NOISES OFF is that anyone thought it
would make a viable commercial film in the first place--especially from the studio that, since 1984, has dominated the marketplace with lightweight vehicles like THREE MEN AND A BABY, PRETTY WOMAN and SISTER ACT. (Adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: By all accounts hilarious onstage, Michael Frayn's backstage farce receives a less-than-brilliant screen translation in NOISES OFF, a Touchstone production which boasts three terrific comic set-pieces with nothing to support them. What plot there is rough… (more)