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The Producers   D

Universal Pictures / Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Susan Stroman
Writers: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan
Cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's no secret that Mel Brooks lost the ability to be funny a long time ago. The latest version of The Producers, which returns to the big screen after successfully morphing into a Broadway musical, is an indelible testament to that fact. The problems of such a mutation -- from movie to play back to movie again -- are legion, and director Susan Stroman (who helmed the stage production but has little experience directing films) is simply the wrong person to overcome them, no matter whose blessing she may have.

Consider, for a moment, the structure of the 1968 original. The movie was essentially one joke -- perhaps the funniest joke ever put on film. The punch line was the "Springtime for Hitler" number, which brilliantly and permanently skewered everything crass and obtuse about the theater. The sixty-odd minutes preceding it served as buildup -- marked by funny material, to be sure, but basically just preparing us for the kicker. Producer Zero Mostel and accountant Gene Wilder conceive of a scheme to make millions by producing a guaranteed flop: a play lousy enough to close in one night. How lousy is it? The film takes slow and joyful delight in telling us. First, we get the title: "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." Sounds pretty bad. It gets worse when we meet the playwright, a traumatized ex-storm trooper who spends his time whispering party agitprop to the pigeons. The director they sign? A nasty gay stereotype who sees the play as Showboat with goose-steppers. The lead? A loopy over-the-hill hippie who wandered into the wrong audition. Every step adds another layer of anticipation -- another hint at just how beautifully, horrendously, breathtakingly atrocious this production could be. Will it meet those expectations? Will it personify every questionable decision and lapse in judgment ever engendered on the Great White Way? When it finally arrives -- when the anticipation breaks and Brooks reveals the sheer grotesque awfulness of it -- it exceeds every possible anticipation we could have had. It's a paean to tackiness, an overwhelming monument to the gold lamé in all our souls... and its satiric perfection wouldn't have been possible without the remainder of the film to pave the way.

That equation is utterly destroyed by the new version. The needs of a big-budget musical dictate that every step in the story's progress -- finding the play, meeting the director, casting, rehearsal, etc. -- is accompanied by a musical number. And in order to maintain the tone, each number must be as outlandish and over-the-top as "Springtime," which means letting the cat out of the bag far too early and often. Stroman revels in the excess of it all, presenting us with kick lines of little old ladies, chorus girls popping out of accountancy files, and a song called "Keep It Gay" which apparently involves the cloned spawn of the Village People. Each song is only faintly amusing, and every one is presented as a showstopper, robbing the film of that slow, beautiful buildup so necessary to its comedic punch. The endless variation of the same "aren't we tasteless?" gag grows old very quickly, and the constant emphasis on overblown theatrics ends up embodying the very indulgences the film is supposed to be ridiculing.

Indeed, the sense of undue theatricality derails most other aspects of the production as well. The atmosphere is intended to invoke the Golden Age of Musicals, a time when everyone had a song on their lips and a tap in their toes. Stroman has enough affection to carry it through (and I grant that she knows how to handle choreography), but the results feel far too stagy and broad for the medium. So too, do the performances reek of playing to an auditorium, ignoring the intimacy required to sell themselves to the movie camera. As producer Max Bialystock -- head lunatic in the scheme to ride a flop to riches -- Nathan Lane hams it up unconscionably, delivering well-polished but essentially phony jokes that largely wither on the vine. His partner Matthew Broderick -- playing meek accountant Leo Bloom -- is even less convincing, limited to shallow delivery that passes empty posturing off as genuine character. Both of them miss the vital edge that their predecessors brought the roles: Mostel's desperation, Wilder's panic, and the mutual sad-eyed human misery that gave their antics such comic depth.

The remaining performances range from the out-of-place to the truly disastrous. Uma Thurman turns up as sexpot secretary Ulla, but the script's attempts to make her character smarter feel awkward and ill formed. Thurman is too experienced for such a slight role, and her non-chemistry with Broderick thoroughly sabotages their would-be romantic subplot. Will Ferrell does little better as Teutonic playwright Franz Liebkind, thrashing about in one of his least funny performances to date (though I concede that his ballad over the closing credits is the best part of the film). Neither of them feel like an organic part of the production, and their roles -- expanded from the 1968 version -- suggest a lot of unnecessary tinkering on the Broadway end of things.

Of course, that tinkering did produce a supremely well-received musical, and I can only imagine that the material we see here plays far better on stage. But returning the story to the movie theaters requires more than just cutting it out and plopping it down. It needs an understanding of something other than empty spectacle, and a way of harnessing the satire without succumbing to it. Above all, it must compare well to the original, bringing a freshness to justify the bother of trying it again. None of that is in evidence here. Flaccid, shambling, and ill timed, The Producers evokes the crumbling remnants of its predecessors, devoid of their energy or charm. Brooks doesn't need a curtain call this badly; by trying to force one, he only demonstrates how far he has fallen.

Review published 12.09.2005.

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