A long time ago—1968 to be exact—in a galaxy not so very far away, there lived a little movie called The Producers, in which beleaguered impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and impressionable accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) conspired to produce the biggest sure-fire flop in the history of Broadway, a Nazi-loving musical called Springtime for Hitler, in turn making off like bandits with the bulk of their investors' $2 million advance. Written and directed by Mel Brooks at the dawn of his moviemaking career, the film may not have quite scaled the hysterical heights of those two diamond-cut comic gems that would soon follow—Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein—but it nevertheless offered 90 minutes of unadulterated comic bliss, thanks in no small measure to the graceful pas de deux between Mostel's shabby grandiloquence and Wilder's wiry mania.
The Producers has been resurrected twice since then, as a Broadway musical and now as a movie musical based on the Broadway one, and in the first instance, the results were about as lively as a decomposing corpse exhumed from a vat of formaldehyde. In fairness, I missed Brooks and director Susan Stroman's Tony-lauded 2001 Broadway production, with Nathan Lane cast as Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as Bloom, so my impressions of the stage version derive from the 2003 touring company that took up extended residence at the Pantages Theater, starring the woefully miscast duo of Jason Alexander and Martin Short. But even separating out those subpar leads, The Producers onstage—expanded to two and one-half hours, with some 18 songs where there once were just two—seemed to diffuse and flatten out (or else render unbearably shrill) all that was sharp, compact and perfectly pitched about Brooks' original conception. What was once subversive and sly had become a writ-large minstrel show with all the comic threat of talent night in a retirement home. (Did we really, for example, need an entire production number called "Make It Gay!"—complete with Village People–costumed chorus line—where the mere appearance of Springtime for Hitler's cross-dressing director, Roger De Bris, and his hissing, prancing "secretary" Carmen Ghia had earlier sufficed just fine?)
The musical film version of The Producers is, for better or worse, a faithful record of the stage show, adhering to the same if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it philosophy that informed the recent Rent, overseen by a director (Stroman) who shows such little moviemaking aptitude that she makes Chris Columbus look like Vincente Minnelli. In her film-directing debut, Stroman seems torn between a full-on indulgence of theatrical artificiality and the desire to achieve a more realistic atmosphere, restricting most of the scenes to airless reproductions of the stage show's sets, but occasionally (and very awkwardly) allowing a sequence to spill out onto the streets of the real Manhattan—which only reinforces the picture's neither-here-nor-there tone. And while the preview audience with which I saw The Producers felt compelled to applaud after each musical number, I was personally moved to ovation only on those rare occasions when Stroman actually moved her camera. (As in Rent, there's only one fluidly musical sequence, though, perversely, this one is relegated to after the end credits.)
But on one crucial count, Stroman delivers: she gives us Broderick and Lane—living proof that a little casting can go a very long way. In truth, Broderick isn't especially good; when he strives for Wilder's shrieking vocal inflections and spastic physicality, the whole performance feels like a put-on. Lane, by contrast, manages to tip his hat to Mostel while investing the role with an oily-haired, potbellied brio all his own—even if you don't believe for a second that anyone (even the octogenarian biddies Max "services" in exchange for their funding of his plays) would risk mistaking Lane for a straight man. There's a tinge of exhaustion to both performances, the sense that Broderick and Lane (who did two tours of Broadway duty each, while Lane also played the role in London) have gone through these motions far too many times to extract any further joy from them. Yet, together, they still give off a spark—they're greater than the sum of their parts.
The movie shows signs of life in other respects, too. Uma Thurman has it, and flaunts it, as the jiggling Swedish receptionist/ingnue Ulla, while the mere sight of Will Ferrell in lederhosen, as Springtime for Hitler's gently psychotic author, Franz Liebkind, is a singularly pleasurable event. Musically speaking, Brooks (who wrote all of the songs) doesn't exactly give George Gershwin a run for his money, but there's a breezy simplicity to his jaunty vaudeville melodies that, after the one-two punch of Rent and The Phantom of the Opera, is like salve on a throbbing wound. Such accomplishments don't quite assuage The Producers' to-the-rafters bombast, or the unrelenting wink-wink, nod-nod self-gratification that plays even worse onscreen than it did onstage, but they do help to make the film more of a passable time filler than a celluloid torture chamber, and in movie-musical times like these, I suppose one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Besides, I wouldn't put it past Brooks that this whole thing might be one big, elaborate prank whose punch line is still to come. In the fourth season of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Brooks guest-starred as himself, inviting the tone-deaf, two-left-footed David to join the Broadway company of The Producers precisely (it was eventually revealed) because he'd grown weary of the show's enormous popularity and yearned to stage his own Bialystock-worthy act of sabotage. But, of course, people loved the show anyway. So it may be that as audiences queue up for this latest incarnation of Brooks' undying brainchild—not unlike the patrons who turn back to their seats, mid-exit, during the opening-night performance of Springtime for Hitler—the joke is on them. And Brooks is laughing all the way to the bank.
THE PRODUCERS WAS DIRECTED BY SUSAN STROMAN; WRITTEN BY MEL BROOKS AND THOMAS MEEHAN, BASED ON THE 2001 MUSICAL AND 1968 MOVIE, WRITTEN BY BROOKS; PRODUCED BY BROOKS AND JONATHAN SANGER. OPENS SUN. COUNTYWIDE.
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