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Years before Birdman, this slapstick farce collided backstage and onstage

John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan in Noises Off

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Noah Baumbach’s new film, Mistress America, is a modern farce. Gear up for it with five days of classic ones.

Noises Off (1992)

“On we blindly stumble,” chirps Lloyd (Michael Caine), director of the feeble farce Nothing On—an English play getting workshopped in Des Moines en route to New York City. Lloyd’s long-suffering show-must-go-on professionalism bumps up against the myriad eccentricities—and outright idiocies—of his actors, whose inability to memorize their lines, cues, or blocking threatens to turn Nothing On into an unintentional laughingstock. When the film was released, Peter Bogdanovich was castigated for failing to make the material appropriately cinematic; Marty Kaplan’s script is very faithful to Michael Frayn’s original play, including the scenes that we see from Nothing On. But the director of What’s Up Doc? surely knows his way around a sight gag. Aided by ace comedy cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt, Bogdanovich keeps things humming along at screwball velocity, adroitly moving his camera around the stage and turning each corner and prop into a potential locus of catastrophe. More doors are slammed here than in the entire broadcast run of Frasier.


And the roles are perfectly cast, from a slow-on-the-take Carol Burnett to a knackered Denholm Elliott (in his final film role) to a hilariously wooden Christopher Reeve, reunited with his Deathtrap co-star Caine and rising nicely to the challenge. The scene where Lloyd tries to give Reeve’s sweetly dim leading man Freddy a good reason during dress rehearsal for why his character would carry a box of groceries onstage is priceless: “Don’t worry, we have several more minutes left before we open,” hisses Caine through scarily narrowed eyes. The joy of Noises Off is watching Bogdanovich and his actors hit their marks so precisely that it seems like the characters are missing theirs; their stumbling is elegantly sure-footed. Long before Birdman interrogated the relationship between backstage bickering and public performance, Noises Off made it the stuff of slapstick dialectics, with no pretensions to speak of, either.

Availability: Noises Off is available on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.

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