As well-cast a cable production as one could hope for, Showtime’s version of Neil Simon’s play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” proves a sparkling ensemble can make even mediocre material entertaining. Director Richard Benjamin and Simon, who did the adaptation, take one of the writer’s least satisfying works and make it worse, transforming a pretty plotless piece into a barely coherent one. And yet, Nathan Lane — playing a volatile but likable comic genius plainly based on the legendary Sid Caesar — and a superb group of supporting players mine this stuff expertly, making each part worth far more than the sum of the whole.
The piece is a tribute to Caesar and to his assembly of a remarkable group of talented writers for his classic sketch series, “Your Show of Shows.” This series, as well as “Caesar’s Hour,” involved the likes of Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, and, of course, Neil Simon. (A documentary on this subject, entitled “Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy,” will premiere immediately after “Laughter.”)
In this fictionalized elegy to the good old days of live TV, Lane plays Max Prince, star of a long-running variety series for NBC that’s not playing to the heartland as well as the network honchos — all given funny, exceedingly goyishe names — would like. As the pressure builds on Prince to tone down the ethnic humor and water down his material, his gaggle of ever-quipping writers begins to worry that their temperamental boss is falling victim to Scotch and tranquilizers. This comedy writing team, a veritable factory of one-liners, is portrayed by a superior group of familiar faces that includes Mark Linn-Baker, Victor Garber, Saul Rubinek, Dan Castellaneta (“The Simpsons”), and “Frasier’s” Peri Gilpin. Mackenzie Astin (“First Years”), the blandest of the lot, plays a young newcomer who narrates the tale intermittently and unhelpfully.
No question, this group of actors could form the basis of one heckuva of a comedy show, and it’s hard to watch this film without wishing they would just do sketch comedy instead of depicting the behind-the-scenes making of it. The one time we do get a glimpse, with Lane playing Marlon Brando playing Julius Caesar, it’s downright hysterical. Then, sadly, we get back to the pic proper, which includes many mentions of McCarthyism without much interesting commentary on it.
What’s a bit strange is that not only has this material been done better before, it’s been done better by the same people doing this. Benjamin directed the much more appealing “My Favorite Year,” which starred Linn-Baker and had the same basic setting if not the same perspective. And Simon, who’s usually sure-footed if not inspired in adapting his stage plays to the screen, makes some real mistakes here, adding a character (Max’s brother Harry, played by Richard Portnow), bringing in Max’s home life and “opening up” the settings by splitting up the scenes and moving them from place to place. The end result is a film that feels like it reaches its climax in the first few minutes and descends into falling action from there.
The cast makes the comedy work, although the streaming jokes get really tired really fast, and the scenes aren’t sustained enough to build significant momentum. Jacqueline Cambas’ editing is notably stiff and Joseph Vitarelli’s score just plain treacly.