Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Starring Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan. (1992, PG-13, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., March 27, 1992
Ironic that Bogdanovich, the first breakthrough talent of the generation of cineastes who became filmmakers (including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) should end up directing this remarkably theatrical adaptation of a play about a play. Noises Off, based on a British farce, is about a wacked theatre company banging around out in the hinterlands with a play they're fine-tuning for Broadway. The first act is the first act of the play, a cheap, fast-paced sex farce, performed faithfully, if with some difficulty by the company. Watching from the director's point of view during the last rehearsal before their first public performance, we get to meet the actors (Ritter, Burnett, Elliott, Henner, Reeve, Sheridan), the director (Caine), the stage manager (Hagerty) and stagehand (Linn-Baker) and discover their relationships to each other. The play itself, about a confusion of couples pouring into a British country house, revolves around sex, taxes and sardines. The second act of the film is again the first act of the play, only later in the tour and from backstage. Here the timing is extraordinary. Relationships are deteriorating, sex has led to jealousy, and the cast and crew are ready to kill each other. Backstage is a silent comedy gag fest, a sharp ballet of swiftly choreographed movement. The third act is the play's last performance before opening in New York -- everything is in ruins. Again, we watch from in front of the curtain as the first act we've come to know is hilariously deconstructed. So why is the film so dull? Because it's basically a theatrical conceit, a gag on theatre, performing and viewing. There are no real characters or moments; all is clever artifice. A film scholar and enthusiastic critic, Bogdanovich graduated to actual filmmaking when working on Roger Corman's Wild Angels (1966). The Charles Whitmanesque Targets (1968) marked his directoral debut, followed by The Last Picture Show (1971) with which he hit the critical and commercial big time. Following with two big hits, What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), it seemed that the boy wonder could do no wrong. But he did with the “only film students love them” series of Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon. Since then he's directed Saint Jack (1979), They All Laughed (1982), Mask (1985), Illegally Yours (1988), and Texasville (1990). But here we find this most conscious of film scholars and stylists succeeding because the filmic reality barely intrudes on the theatrical reality. We never really get to know the characters, they are stereotypes, their relationships are all standard fare. The charm of the film is that's it's so clever a play, but that cleverness wears thin quickly.