Not all hit plays and musicals translate into hit films, as evidenced by the 1992 screen adaptation of playwright Michael Frayn's comedy stage hit "Noises Off" which became a sensation on Broadway, the West End and in countless road productions. The premise of the production remains the same in Marty Kaplan's screenplay: a touring production of a British sex farce called "Nothing On" is frantically rehearsing amidst a string of disasters for a pivotal performance in Des Moines on the long road for a hoped-for eventual opening on Broadway. The film version tells the story in flashbacks with the play's director, Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine), a basket case of nerves as he paces about the Broadway theater where the premiere performance is underway. This plot gimmick poses a problem from the outset: the premise of the script is that, as the production lurches from disastrous road engagement to disastrous road engagement, it seems virtually impossible that the cast and crew will ever get their act together sufficiently to merit an opening on Broadway...but since the prologue shows us the play has opened on Broadway, it robs the script of any surprise because we know these inept players will indeed overcome the tidal wave of mishaps. This is yet another British property that has been Americanized, with only old pros Caine and Denholm Elliott representing the Brits. The other key roles are filled by talented American actors, among them Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Christopher Reeve and Mark Linn-Baker. They all perform very well but why have people who have pretend British accents when you can have British actors to begin with? The answer is" boxoffice. The studio obviously felt that there weren't sufficient big names available in the UK film industry to certify the film would be a hit. They missed the boat completely. "Noises Off" was a big flop, though it has developed something of a cult following in the ensuing years.
The film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, once Hollywood's golden boy. He hadn't had a hit since "Paper Moon" in 1973 and his association on "Noises Off" as a work-for-hire director seems to signify he was more in search of a paycheck than in presenting a film he had a great passion for. Things start off brightly as we see the rehearsal for "Nothing On" fall apart at the seams as director Fellowes reaches for his Valium. Things don't go well on opening night and, indeed, the situation deteriorates to a disastrous level on the road. Part of the problem is the complexity of the farce, which requires actors to bound all over the stage, entering and exiting with precision timing. Critics and audiences loved the theatrical version of "Noises Off" because of these logistical challenges that inevitably face the cast and director. On film, however, we're all too aware that numerous takes and deliberate editing can salvage a scene in a way that a live production can't benefit from. Bogdanovich does a good job of directing the hectic traffic but he's hampered by the fact that we see the same scenes played out under different circumstances until they get to be predictable and boring. By the time the show's most accident-prone performance is depicted, the entire affair has become monotonous, even if the cast members exert themselves admirably and deliver deft comedic performances. Some of the more amusing aspects of the film revolve around the off-stage shenanigans that find secret affairs, jealous lovers and drunken temper tantrums combining to drive the director to the point of insanity. Caine gives the film's most amusing performance and he's in top form. Because of the many cast members, most don't get adequate opportunity to stand out, though Nicollette Sheriden deserves special credit for being able to suffer through the antics while cast in bra and panties. One continuing joke that does work well is Bogdanovich's clever use of a bottle of booze and a bouquet of flowers that ended up being frantically and accidentally passed around backstage and being cleverly used and misused by those who come into possession of them.
The film's epilogue wraps things up with a too abrupt ending that seems overly cheerful considering the mishaps that we have witnessed.
"Noises Off" isn't a bad film but it never rises to the level of classic farce that many feel the stage production succeeded in doing. If you have any background in theater, you will probably find the movie more enjoyable than the average viewer.