I don’t venture into the world of cinema criticism in these muddled pages very often, but a couple of days ago I saw a movie that had me laughing hard even as my brain was expanding outwards at the speed of light from the brilliance of the writing.
It all started when I was advised that a particular scene (or series of scenes) in Munchies needs to be a “Noises Off!” scene. And what is that? It’s a bedroom farce, one of those comedy devices where a small space is filled with a lot of people who don’t know the others are there, going in and out with crackerjack timing. Hilarity ensues. Mel Brooks has made a career off these things. I confessed I had not seen Noises Off!. My peers resolved to remedy that situation.
“Look at all the doors,” someone near me said at the start of the play-within-a-movie. Indeed, there were a lot of doors, and when things are going according to script one door will open the instant another closes, as people come and go through the central room in a spiral of confusion that ends, of course, with ridiculous calamity. We are first introduced to the actors and the play during a very shaky dress rehearsal, and we learn the play (or at least act one), and appreciate the crackling timing of the cast — made especially clear when the timing breaks down.
“Leave the sardines, take the newspaper!” Bellows director Michael Caine at a weary Carol Burnett. Does it really matter that much? I asked myself. But yes it did. The movement of every piece is critical as sardines appear and disappear, suitcases vanish, and confusion escalates. “But why do I take the groceries into the study?” asks an insecure Christopher Reeve. The correct answer is, of course, “it’s a farce and sometimes you skate fast over stuff like that.” But that doesn’t satisfy our actor, and his director must invent some other preposterous motivation. Rehearsal continues.
So by the end of the film’s act one we’ve met a complicated bedroom farce that’s pretty funny on its own. That’s what I’m shooting for in Munchies (substituting lawyer’s office for bedroom, and honestly I don’t know if I have enough moving parts). But here’s where Noises Off really launches. The cast has a lot of drama going on between them offstage, and during one performance the jealousies and misunderstandings lead to utter chaos backstage. There is a second farce, far more complex, with (almost) no dialog at all, since they must be silent backstage. Because they can’t speak, physical situations are misinterpreted and things just get worse. Throw in a bottle of whiskey, a fire axe, bouquets of flowers of steadily diminishing size, and a cactus, all moving from person to person in a tightly choreographed silent movie that matches the beats of the play onstage, overlapping and constrained by which of the many doors people have to go through at a given time, and on top of that create characters that are funny and engaging, and you’ve got my undying admiration.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the next performance doesn’t go as well as that one did. We have a third farce, funny for its complete departure from the original.
The movie was adapted from a stage production, and I’d really like to see that. I think my head would explode watching that whole thing performed in a single take.
Which reminds me that the editor of this film had no room for error, either.
If you’re one of the few English-speaking inhabitants of our fair world who has not seen this flick, give it a go! If you’ve seen it before, you might enjoy it a second time, just to appreciate the brilliant layering of farce upon farce.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a Colombian Emerald and Diamond Ring in 18kt yellow gold), I get a kickback.