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Better than They Told You - 'Noises Off!' (1992)

The strings could just as easily be around his neck.
Touchstone Pictures

Noises Off! (1992)


So, it's a film adaptation of a play about a play.

This one feels like a bit of a cheat. With a 57% rating, it's still rotten, but the only bad critical review available to read seems to have a huge *whoosh* factor working against it. The high concept of the film seems to elude the critic in question. Still, I'm here to explain why this movie is a 5-star affair.

Set largely in the far-flung theaters of the American midwest, Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off isn't a character piece, has no genuine drama, and is instead about the artifice of the world of performers - in this case, stage actors. From the first "darling" used by director Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) to address fading actress and financier Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett) to the ensuing avalanche of "dears," "my loves," and "sweethearts," thrown about by the rest of the cast, each of the players wears a mask. It's only once the play hits the road and the wheels begin to come off that the masks fall away and we're left with a group of snide, petty, and often dimwitted people struggling to hang together despite sizing each other for the noose.

And it's all great fun.

I can recall no film I have ever laughed harder at. My daughter came out of her bedroom telling me to "stuff it" because I couldn't stop and she was trying to get to sleep. The action requires Swiss timepiece synchronization and it's the most enjoyable high-wire performance you could hope to see.

The first act sets up director Lloyd Fellowes waiting nervously for the Broadway debut of his American cast version of a hit British sex farce called Nothing On. It sounds more complicated than it is. He then flashes back to the final dress rehearsal before the first debut in Des Moines, Iowa. We learn the way the play's first act is supposed to go. It's an amusing if cheap, bawdy, titillating, thoroughly British comedy, based on timing and misappropriations, like most British comedies of the late 20th century. It's a film for active watchers, asking that you pay attention to details like who comes on when, how many plates of sardines are in play, where conveniently identical boxes and bags might be, and who's behind which door.

Matters are complicated by the blooming romances as well as the fatal flaws of those involved in the production, like Dotty's fragile ego, Lloyd's philandery, Freddie's (Christopher Reeve) divorce and literally physical aversion to violence, Selsdon's (Denholm Elliott) alcoholism and creeping senility, Garry's (John Ritter) inability to form a coherent sentence and deep jealousy, Brooke's (Nicollette Sheridan) wayward contact lenses, and Belinda's (Marilu Henner) conflicting feelings for Freddie. Throwing these into the pot make the inevitable disaster stew all the more delicious.

By the second act we see everything begin to go pear-shaped as we watch the backstage happenings rather than front of house. It's a cartoonish explosion of action as each of our self-centered and amoral players attempts to seduce, imbibe, maim and even kill, often prevented from their courses of action by a last, split-second save on the part of another cast or crew member. It's juggling chainsaws while balancing on a ball floating in a pool of piranhas.

In the third act, the play has limped its way to Cleveland and we're back looking at the stage with no clear idea of what is happening in the back, but something must have gone horribly wrong. The wrongness bleeds its way out front and chaos ensues. As Dotty notes, "It's getting like a funeral out here." All the better for the audience, though, because out of that tragedy comes even funnier moments and some of the best physical comedy of all time.

The blink-and-you'll miss it timing may not have lent itself well to a theatrical screening as I frequently find myself backing scenes up as I laugh through a setup or punchline or my eyes are too blurry as tears stream down my face and I struggle to breathe. However, this is pure slapstick comedy at its best and bringing together a cast as talented as those listed above was lightning in a bottle.

Having read this far I'm sure you already can guess that Noises Off! is in my top ten all time. I quite literally have the movie poster hanging on my wall (the same one shown above), and every time I see it back in HD on Netflix I will spend an afternoon or evening revisiting this insanely funny film. It's worth owning and I fully intend to see the stage play on which it's based the next time it comes to town.

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