We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson (subject of a retrospective next March at the National Gallery of Art) observed that there is “nothing more inelegant and ineffective than an art conceived in another art’s form.” In his collected pensées, Notes on Cinematography, he is especially dismissive of filmed theater. “On the stage a horse or dog that is not plaster or cardboard causes uneasiness. Unlike cinematography, looking for a truth in the real is fatal in the theater.”

Despite the effort and expense that contemporary stage directors invest to attain realism—simulated rainstorms and helicopter landings—theater essentially remains a phenomenon of language and actors inhabiting abstract space and time. The specificity of film and the power of photography and editing tend to nullify the very things that make for successful theater. One after another, prize-winning plays such as Equus, Crimes of the Heart, ‘night Mother, Agnes of God, and, I’m told, Dancing at Lughnasa wither under the camera’s merciless gaze. What pass in the theater for eloquent acting and thoughtful writing are exposed as ham and cheese.

Two filmed plays opening this week underscore the inelegance of attempting to translate a work from one medium to another. Mark Herman’s Little Voice is a screen adaptation of actor-playwright Jim Cartwright’s 1992 London stage hit The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Jane Horrocks, the helium-headed Bubble on television’s Absolutely Fabulous, reprises her West End role in the movie version.

Little Voice lives with Mari (Brenda Blethyn), her garrulous, sluttish mother, in a rundown northern England seaside resort. Since her father’s death, Little Voice has fallen nearly mute, cloistered in her bedroom and devoting herself to his legacy: a collection of show-biz diva recordings. Mari takes up with Ray (Michael Caine), a sleazy talent agent who discovers that Little Voice can channel the singing of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, and other stars. Spotting a potential meal ticket, he and Mari pressure the girl into giving a public performance. Her reluctant agreement precipitates both success and disaster.

Cartwright’s derivative play, adapted (and coarsened) for the screen by director Herman, combines the tatty, seaside ambiance of The Entertainer with the ironic juxtaposition of idealized popular music and sordid realism of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective. The film’s symbolism is bruisingly crude. Little Voice, a caged songbird, attracts an equally silent young telephone repairman admirer who raises homing pigeons (get it?), one of which, unfortunately named Duane, becomes the withdrawn girl’s protector. The movie’s trite theme—that people must find their voices and try their wings—develops with as much depth as Mama Cass’ vintage hit “Make Your Own Kind of Music.”

Herman’s patchy direction, which cobbles together each sequence from snippets of footage, works against the actors’ efforts to build performance rhythms. (This choppy visual style undermines what should be the film’s central set piece, Little Voice’s nightclub debut.) Caine comes off best, playing the oily, boozy lowlife that has become his stock in trade, most memorably in Mona Lisa and Blood and Wine. Although deservedly nominated for an Oscar for Secrets and Lies, Blethyn shrilly overplays Mari, dragging out every over-the-hill-tart cliché without a trace of individualizing nuance. Ewan McGregor’s few scenes as Little Voice’s bird-kissing Prince Charming make no impression. There’s nothing in the paper-thin role for the talented young actor to seize hold of.

Horrocks poses a special problem. Here, as in the stage production, she mimics all of the superstar voices herself. What must have seemed a tour de force in the theater has far less impact on the screen, where singing is generally prerecorded and lip-synched, and often dubbed by a ghost vocalist. With Horrocks’ performance magnified on film, it’s clear that her songstress impersonations aren’t so remarkable, certainly not a patch on the work of such drag artists as Jim Bailey and Tommy Femia. In her character’s private moments, Horrocks’ stolid expressions and high-pitched, heavily accented voice are too reminiscent of Bubble to allow us to take the melodramatic, waifish Little Voice seriously.

With its inane, fairy-tale ending, Little Voice is pablum dished up as black comedy. But it’s considerably more palatable than Anthony Drazan and David Rabe’s excruciating screen adaptation of Rabe’s 1984 Tony Award-winning play, Hurlyburly.

Mike Nichols’ Broadway production featuring William Hurt, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver must have been extraordinary to convince Tony voters that Rabe’s pretentious, interminable talkfest deserved a prize. The film’s press-kit description—”a scathingly funny and touchingly human story about the quest for meaning in our morally muddled times”—hints at what awaits hapless moviegoers.

Rabe’s quest for meaning is set—where else?—in Hollywood. His characters are coke-sniffing mini-moguls (Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey) and Tinseltown wannabes (Garry Shandling, Chazz Palminteri) and their mistreated women (Robin Wright Penn, Meg Ryan, Anna Paquin). These self-absorbed beings run their mouths for 122 minutes, pausing only to screw and get stoned to allay, momentarily, their existential angst.

“Oh my God,” one character wails, “I can’t stand this semantic insanity any more”—a sentiment guaranteed to strike a responsive chord in viewers. Not since the heyday of Arthur “Attention Must Be Paid” Miller has a playwright unleashed such a torrent of self-important, tin-eared verbiage. (Several characters append “blah, blah, blah” to the ends of their speeches, as though even they can’t bear to finish reciting them.) Some samples: “Desperation is within my area of expertise.” “Just be alert, because your tendencies are all over the place.” “Everything pertains to everything in one way or another” and the deathless “I’m a real person. Suck my dick.” And how about this snappy exchange:

“You look great.”

“It’s a façade.”

“What isn’t?”

Largely confined to a sleekly photographed Hollywood Hills bachelor pad, Hurlyburly is designed as an actors’ showcase, but Drazan fails to rein in his male performers. Penn contributes some intense moments, but also an equal number of self-parodic, scenery-chewing miscalculations, notably his explosion over the choice of a restaurant. Spacey’s decision to play Penn’s business partner, a cynical, manipulative womanizer, as an aging, bleached queen makes no sense. Palminteri’s simian turn as a frustrated, physically abusive actor seems influenced by Ed Norton—the sewer worker, not the movie star. The bewildered Shandling appears to have wandered onto the set by mistake.

The women fare somewhat better. Wright Penn holds her own in scenes with her volatile husband, and Ryan is passable if unmemorable, cast against type as an available, put-upon stripper noted for her oral-sex expertise. The film’s sole knockout performance is Paquin’s sweet, sexually exploited runaway. The Piano’s Oscar-winning shy moppet has matured into a sensitive, assured teenage performer shrewd enough to make her character’s silences more articulate than the rest of the ensemble’s maddening logorrhea.

Hurlyburly ends on a note of synthetic uplift, a glimpse of salvation for the tormented Penn. This is the movie’s ultimate cop-out: its failure to respect the integrity of its own misanthropic vision. CP