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Producers, The (2005) Print E-mail
Sunday, 25 December 2005
For those who couldn’t afford the enormous ticket prices for the theatrical version of “The Producers,” here it is at more common-man prices—and it really does seem to be the musical play. Theatrical devices like changing lighting schemes abound; the action is staged largely horizontally across the screen, as it has to be on stage. But mainly, the acting styles are gigantic, enormous, not just broadly theatrical, but theatrical in every direction—back, forth, up down, in, out.

Of course, this was largely true of the original movie of “The Producers,” too. In 1968, people tended to want to step back a few feet when Zero Mostel launched into his magnificently wild-eyed portrayal of desperate theatrical producer Max Bialystock. He seemed to loom over, tower over, meek Gene Wilder; it’s one of the most dynamic performances in movie history, and one of the funniest. Nathan Lane had mighty big clown shoes to fill.

But he comes very close to doing that. He’s smaller and therefore less imposing than the immortal Mostel, but he’s just as energetic, bouncing around the set like a rubber ball. He comes across as something of a blend of Mostel and Lou Costello, a good idea in its own right. And of course, he played the role on stage in hundreds of performances, so he’s got it down pat.

So does Matthew Broderick as Leopold “Leo” Bloom, a mousy accountant who arrives at Bialystock’s office where posters for previous Bialystock flops, including “King Leer” and “The Breaking Wind,” decorate the walls. Bialystock is just coming off his latest floppola, “Funny Boy,” a musical version of “Hamlet.” He’s frantic about trying to get another show staged, and doesn’t pay much attention to Leo.

Until, that is, Leo mentions that a flop might earn a producer more money than a hit. You aren’t expected to return the investment on a flop—even if you sell more than 100% of it. Especially if you do. Max leaps on this with infectious enthusiasm, though at first the timid Leo doesn’t want to go along with it.

But after returning to his boring, unhappy job as an accountant—a grim room with many young men at identical desks—he has a Broadway moment, seeing himself as a hero of the Great White Way, dancing up a storm with beautiful girls in beautiful pearls. And he’s in.

The basic idea: find the worst possible script, pair it with the worst possible director, and voila, a sure-fire flop. But of course, things don’t flip the way Bialystock and Bloom want them to flop.
The original movie, directed by Brooks himself, was as broad and flamboyant as a musical, it just didn’t have any songs. Well, it had one; the guaranteed awful play they produce was written by an unregenerate Nazi sympathizer, here Franz Liebkind, energetically played by the busy Will Ferrell (isn’t this his fourth movie this year?). It was a heart-felt musical about the glories of the Third Reich and the greatness of Der Führer called “Springtime for Hitler.” Its title song was outrageous—both a good, if corny, song and a litany of the horrors of Nazi Germany.

That memorable song turns up here, along with lots of others. It’s been years since Broadway songs routinely became pop hits on the radio and juke boxes, so unless you’re familiar with the musical to begin with, the songs of “The Producers” will be new to you. Some are quite good; the chorus that happily sings about how rotten Bialystock’s plays are opens the movie in a buoyant, wiseacre fashion. “Bialystock has done it again!” they exult.

Max’s song to Leo about how “We Can Do It” includes some real locations in Central Park—partly because the movie is set in the 1950s, it was mostly shot on constructed sets—and blends into Leo’s solo about wanting to be a producer. Max’s assurance that “there’s a lot more to you than there is to you” has given Leo wings. Broderick is only moderately talented as singer or dancer, but he’s so delighted at himself that it’s infectious. The number and the song are nicely old fashioned.

With Ferrell, Lane and Broderick are forced to prance about to the “Gutentag Clop Hop.” When they meet with extravagantly homosexual director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach, who’s great) and his even more flamboyant boyfriend/assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart, also great), plus their Village People-styled roommates, all the boys burst into “Keep It Gay.” With this bunch, there’s no other possibility.

Then the Swedish sexpot Ulla (Uma Thurman) strides into the offices of Bialystock and Brown, and immediately does a number based on something she overheard Max say earlier, “Ven you got eet, flaunt eet.” She urges them to stroot their stoof, and Leo is smitten. This romance feels shoehorned into the story, and never quite works—but Thurman, in a daffy Swedish accent, is simply great. Her later number with Leo, “That Face,” is supposed to establish them as a romantic couple, but the choreography and song are routine; the number doesn’t even build to a clinch.

Max raises money by romancing old ladies. VERY old ladies. The montage of seductions in the earlier movie is here replaced by a Busby Berkeley-inspired mass dance of old ladies in pillbox hats, old-fashioned blue dresses with lots of lace and aluminum walkers. It’s a strangely elaborate number that never quite has the effect intended, and ends rather limply—but it’s pretty funny to see all these old bats in Central Park doing synchronized kicks and turns with their walkers.

It’s a testament to the movie and to Brooks that the big opening of “Springtime for Hitler,” in which Roger De Bris has to replace Franz Liebkind as Hitler, the star of the show, isn’t a letdown after all the other stuff. It’s pretty grand—and quite similar to the same number in the original movie. But after that, the movie somewhat overstays its welcome; Max’s angry song at evidently being betrayed by Leo and Ulla doesn’t work, nor does the followup reconciliation number.

Well-known people are scattered throughout the film, including David Huddleston, Michael McKean, Andrea Martin and Mel Brooks himself (he’s at the very end of the closing credits). But mostly the movie is about Bialystock and Brown, with Ulla, Roger and Liebkind tossed in along the way. It must stand or fall on the performances of Lane and Broderick—and despite their playing to the last rows of the balcony, it stands. No, they’re not as good as Mostel and Wilder, but I don’t think Wilder could sing and dance (Mostel, of course, definitely could).

Broderick is a little too normal and too handsome to play the mopey outsider Leopold Bloom; he’s just too cute. Bialystock’s domination of Bloom should partly be physical, and Lane is too small and cuddly to convey the looming dynamism that Mostel did. This story has a very strong Jewish flavor—but Broderick and Lane come across as very whitebread Gentiles. This slightly hobbles the story, as if an ingredient is missing.

But that’s not very important. The movie is stage bound and limited by theatrical conventions, but it’s breezy and energetic, as well as consistently funny, even riotous at times. And, of course, it’s wonderful to see a very Broadway-like musical on the big screen again. Yeah, “Rent” was a musical, too, but it’s about AIDS and poverty; I’m glad to see a musical about greed, friendship and the theater once again.

Now Brooks is trying to turn “Young Frankenstein” into a big musical. More power to him, and I hope that he plays a part in the movie that will eventually wind its way to the screen. Whether you can see him or not, the energetic, ambitious Brooks is always the best part of anything he does. He goes too far sometimes, he occasionally badly blows his jokes, but he’s always in there punching. Despite not having Wilder and (especially) Mostel, the musical of “The Producers” is, too. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when walking out—especially if you stay for Brooks’ final message.

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