FILM / Farce about a farce that's no joke: Noises Off (12); Beethoven' (U)

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NOTHING IS more beautiful than farce. You can try getting sniffy at its low ambitions, but just look at that frantic grace, hounded by hellish risk. All other breeds of performance look shagged and sullen beside it. If the fat lady fails to sing, the conductor can always go round the block and pick her up on the rebound; if Lear forgets his lines, the Fool can hiss a prompt under the kindly cover of the storm. But if the trousers stay up when the maid comes in, that's it. The spell is smashed, and we can all give up and go home. From this pitched battle between palaver and triumph, Michael Frayn emerged with his most successful play; now, in the wobbly hands of Peter Bogdanovich, Noises Off has become a film.

On stage, we watched a play within a play, a ripe old British comedy turning bad. The joke was that Frayn could make a kind of super-farce out of that failure. In the movie, the conceit remains; but the action has switched from England to America, from local rep to the lights of Broadway. We learn this at once; in a panting voiceover, Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) introduces himself as the director of Nothing On, which has arrived in New York after a nationwide tour. For Lloyd, New York is make or break. A make, as it turns out: the epilogue confirms Nothing On has been a scream, a sell-out, the real McCoy with a cherry on top.

Hang on. Forgive me, but wasn't the play that we saw a complete break, reeking of disaster? Frayn's plot was hatched in with shadows of pathos: you could see his characters coming apart as they stepped on to the tightrope of yet another dud matinee. Bogdanovich has wiped the story clean; he couldn't give a damn about these people, which doesn't allow us too many damns of our own. The pace gets faster and faster, but you have less and less idea of what's going on, let alone why. Bogdanovich has sunk a long way from the screwy heights of What's Up, Doc?, where Streisand was wound up and ready to go on the first bar of the opening credits. She hit the film running and never let up, a kooky centrifuge slinging off chaos.

The cast of Noises Off has nothing to match this. There are troupers like Denholm Elliott and Carol Burnett, but they can't do much more than troup, although I enjoyed Elliott's sozzled plea, his voice fading away like a vapour trail: 'A line? A prompt?' The one success is Christopher Reeve, playing a Supernerd with a maple tan, harking back to What's Up, Doc? and Ryan O'Neal. Bogdanovich is suspiciously good at directing handsome boneheads, as if they touch a chord in his soul, but their female counterparts leave him cold. Here we have Nicollette Sheridan, complete with stay-up stockings and closed- down brain, and a bunch of Frayn's best lines. 'They've both not gone]' is my favourite, the reductio ad absurdum of an already absurd genre. But she needs that Judy Holliday mood, leisured and radiant, instead of which she bustles through the line and out the other side before you've noticed. Amazing, really: all that ready-made fluffiness, and she fluffs it.

Not her fault, mind you. It's the movie that makes her rush. Noises Off is panic-stricken instead of silky, woefully myopic when it needs a level gaze. In the theatre, Frayn had us looking at the set, then backstage, then round to the front again. Bogdanovich keeps to that format, but plonks his camera up on stage to poke into people's funny business. Near the beginning, it develops a bad case of the shakes trying to climb up the staircase, blind to what's happening elsewhere. Farce should appal us with a vision of multiple incidents sparking all at once; if it shows us just the one, we feel we can cope - which is no fun at all. Think of The Navigator, the camera watching patiently as Buster Keaton races the love of his life around a ship. Neither knows the other is there, but fate is about to slap them together. A close-up would wreck their delight, and ours, too. As Jacques Tati said: 'I have no right to bang anyone's nose against the screen.'

Noises Off bangs away, tripping up the running gags - even a basic bum-on-the-cactus routine loses its bite. The performers crow their lines regardless of whether they're on stage or not, as if scared to pause for thought. Maybe Bogdanovich knew he had a stinker on his hands: why else would he add all the reaction shots? When the play goes wrong, Michael Caine makes a cut-throat gesture; when it works, he giggles like a schoolboy. The audience is supposed to follow suit, but is more likely to feel insulted. Bogdanovich wants his film to flow like silent comedy, but it's more like the printed titles that broke the silent action and told you what to think.

Beethoven was a big success in America. When I first heard the title, I had bad dreams about Arnold Schwarzenegger sitting there with crazy hair and a stiff collar, telling everyone to speak up and complaining that these late quartets were really driving him nuts. So here's the good news: it's not about Beethoven. The bad news is, it's about a St Bernard. Yes, your basic dog movie, a mangy old tradition if ever I saw one. You know the form: piddles of hilarity, tears of joy. Big dogs are the worst; comedy needs a wiry snapper, like the one who played Asta in The Thin Man and George in Bringing up Baby.

Beethoven starts off like its hero, a wad of inarticulate fuzz. It's hard to warm to any film which is already toasting itself with puppy images. Thankfully we get an emergency montage which takes us from whelp to certified adult within a couple of minutes. Beethoven is now the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and stuck in fourth gear, a mobile mud dispenser in a clean suburban house. This belongs to George Newton (Charles Grodin) and his wife Alice (Bonnie Hunt), plus their three children, who rather make you hope that Beethoven has lingering rabies. The eldest one is called Ryce, possibly because she goes soggy after 15 minutes and never recovers, falling in love with some jerk who looks at Beethoven and says, 'Cool darg.'

The script makes him more than cool, of course; he must be brave and cunning, too, and don't forget socially intuitive. This is one of those alarming comedies in which the animals are slightly more than human, and the characters slightly less. 'Beethoven made this house real,' sighs George, as if it used to be a put- up job. But somehow or other, Grodin - the master of zero enthusiasm, as proved by Midnight Run - keeps his dud role going and the slop level down, and some of the sight gags (saying goodbye with a garden hose, serving cocktails to bastards) work better than anything in Noises Off. If you have children glazed and traumatised by Batman Returns, this could be a good quiet option. The music may be played by 'The World's Most Dangerous Band', but don't let that fool you: this is is The World's Safest Film.

'Noises Off' (12): Odeon Haymarket (839 7697) & Kensington (371 3166), Chelsea (351 3742). 'Beethoven' (U): Plaza (497 9999), Whiteleys (792 3303), MGM Trocadero (434 0031), Oxford St (636 0310) & Fulham Rd (370 2636). All numbers are 071.

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