Director: Susan Stroman
Cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach, Roger Bart
MPAA Rating: (for sexual humor and references)
Running Time: 2:20
Release Date: 12/16/05 (limited); 12/25/05 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The Producers, Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his 1968 film, was one of those incredibly rare bolts of theatrical lightning. It not only was a creative revival of Brooks' slumping career but also of the musical comedy in general. The play was a huge success and won twelve Tony Awards, more than any other before it. And, of course, it was damn funny. Now, we have a film adaptation of the stage play which was based on a movie that centered on a stage musical (yes, the world can be a strange place), and for the large majority, they get it right. The movie musical has had its own revival in the past few years, and while The Producers might seem to fit perfectly in terms of timing, this is not the flashy, bombastic filmmaking of the new school of film musicals. First-time screen director and choreographer Susan Stroman (who also directed/choreographed the stage version) instead takes her inspiration from a time when movie musicals had, above all else, class. It was strange enough to have such a crass comedy serve as the basis for the salvation of the Broadway musical, but it is even stranger to find myself saying that The Producers is one of the classiest movie musicals I've seen.
The story is identical to the original film. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer (the Shubert Theatre has specially installed a sign that switches from "opening night" to "closing night" with the turn of a crank) who woos little old ladies into backing his flops (his latest: a musical version of Hamlet titled Funny Boy). A cowardly accountant named Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) walks into his office only to find himself fixing his childhood hero's financial books to account for a $2,000 discrepancy. Upon fudging the numbers, Bloom has a theoretical revelation upon which Bialystock immediately jumps—a producer with no moral qualms could make more money with a flop than with a hit by raising more money than he needs and having the show close in one night. After some cajoling and singing, Bloom takes on Max's offer to join him in his scheme. The plan: raise two million dollars to fund the worst play ever written, directed by worst director in New York, and starring the worst possible cast. The play is Springtime for Hitler, written by Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), a former Nazi in hiding, and after that, everything else would seem to logically fall into place.
One's first inclination is to compare the musical to its source material, but such assessments are frivolous. These are two completely different animals. Brooks' film is madcap comedy at its best (when people ask me what my favorite comedy is, two films spring immediately to mind, and The Producers is one of them) and his musical a lighthearted romp that jokingly nudges the genre while longing for its restoration. Only two scenes are directly shared by them, and one is the infamous and hilarious musical number of Liebkind's play. The other is the first meeting of Bialystock and Bloom. The original film starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and it is one of those scenes that lovers of the movie can quote on a dime. Here, the bantering between Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick is merely a shadow of their predecessors', but the scene turns into a song and announces the arrival of this version as its own entity. After a very, very stiff and stagy opening number and the oddity of the opening introduction scene, the film quickly finds its footing and stride, and Stroman's minimalist technical but assured staging direction never lets up.
Each of the musical numbers has its own personality while still adhering to the overall tone of the film. As Bialystock tries to convince Bloom to participate in his plan, the action moves around from the office to the street to a cab to Central Park, assuring us that this will not be a restricted stage-to-screen adaptation. Bloom soon after fantasizes about his life as a Broadway producer amidst the tedium of his accounting office, and Stroman lets the camera capture the ensuing tap-dancing in long shots with limited edits. As viscerally appealing as the quick-cut editing of the new-school film musical is, there is something exceptionally invigorating about watching a well-executed dance sequence with as little cuts as possible. When Will Ferrell arrives, slapstick ensues, and it must be noted that Ferrell is kept on the leash he so essentially needs, giving a fine comic performance that serves the material and not himself. As manic as Bialystock and Bloom are, they end up serving as the straightmen for the motley crew awaiting them in the process of making a monumental failure. Never so much as when they meet Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), the worst director in New York who is fascinated by Liebkind's script for its historical trivia ("I, for one, never knew that 'The Third Reich' meant Germany.") and shares Hitler's middle name.
And, of course, there's a girl. Uma Thurman appears as Ulla, an actress looking for her big break who ends up so impressing the producing team with her assets that Max demands she work as their receptionist/secretary. Thurman is a physically appropriate choice, but lacks a bit in the vocal capacity needed for the role. As Leo and Ulla make a romantic connection and the Gershwin-esque score accompanies their dreamy promenade across the whitewashed office, though, one forgives little things like that. Ferrell and Thurman are the only main cast members not part of the original stage production, and the three who do appear make the best of their roles. Gary Beach is a riot as the dimmest bulb of the bunch, and his eventual appearance as Adolf Hitler in his own opus is a brief but hilarious depiction of the prima donna conceit. Broderick and Lane have the biggest challenge in following in Wilder and Mostel's shoes, but they manage to make these characters primarily their own. Broderick's Bloom is an affably goofy and likable bore. Lane accomplishes much more, though, recalling Mostel without copying him and giving Max a bit more charm and achieving a sort of transcendence in his performance.
Thinking about it, the film itself pulls off a similar feat. It must re-envision a classic film, do justice to a hugely popular stage production, and yet still stand on its own. The fact that it manages to accomplish all three of these, evokes a seemingly long-forgotten era of moviemaking, and ends up being the funniest movie Brooks has been associated with in almost thirty years is a success that makes one think lightning can strike twice.
Note: Be sure to stay through the closing credits to hear Will Ferrell's hilarious rendition of the Fuhrer's favorite tune in the style of a cheesy love ballad and to see the cast's curtain call featuring a cameo by Brooks himself.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.