Mel Brooks’ record-breaking 2001 Broadway musical and 1967 movie gets an enthusiastic makeover by director Susan Stroman. But Brooks’ top-heavy script crumbles in the second half as with past productions of the dated material.
Well-paired duo Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick give highly polished onscreen performances thanks to their extensive time spent together performing the play on Broadway. Brooks’ nutty story follows the fall and rise and fall of washed up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Lane) as he induces his straight-laced accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) to conspire on a sure-thing-flop musical production called Springtime For Hitler. Their scheme to become millionaires, by swindling their blue-haired backers, backfires when the play becomes an overnight hit. Uma Thurman adds zest as Ulla, the producers’ Swedish bombshell secretary.
For giddy musical fans who never saw The Producers on Broadway, the movie is a competent rendition that, like Rent, never lets the audience forget that you’re watching a film version of a play. Set in the cloistered Broadway world of the late 1950s, the woof and warp of Brooks’ cheesy characters wears thin as his cartoon stereotypes go through the motions of producing a musical flop. It doesn’t help matters that Brooks’ satire of Hitler hits as many bum notes as good ones with its assertion that there’s no accounting for the public’s fickle tastes.
Matthew Broderick’s intricately modulated stage performance comes to brilliant light under Stoman’s lens. The first third of the movie involves Max trying to convince Leo to put his high morals and low self-esteem on a shelf long enough to fleece a million dollars from Broadway investors. It’s in these early scenes that Broderick steals focus with surprising facial expressions and an off-kilter delivery that simmers with comic heat. Broderick’s dancing may not enter the realm of Fred Astaire but he works the choreography of his character like a Broadway veteran.
Brooks’ songs are spiked with darts of humorous vulgarity but are not the kind to send you humming any specific tune on your way out of the cinema. Will Ferrell makes the most of his glorified cameo performance as escaped Nazi-turned-playwright Franz Liebken. Complete with Nazi armbands and a flock of saluting pigeons, Ferrell’s Liebken stays true to Brooks’ irreverent brand of kooky operatic comedy.
The story hinges on Leo and Max’s decision to hire a campy cross-dressing director (think Ed Wood) named Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) to oversee their “doomed” production. The limelight seeking De Bris pulls out all of his Ethyl Mermen moves when he steps in to fill the Hitler role after Franz Liebken breaks his leg on opening night. De Bris hits a self-mocking attitude as Hitler that lures the escaping audience back to their seats and ensures some jail time for Max and Leo.
The Producers is a dated play with an outdated brand of humor that is at once too racy and yet too soft to function as meaningful satire by today’s standards. Broderick and Lane work every angle of comedy available to their naive characters and set an easy comic tone that everything hangs on. The play may be lousy, but the actors are great. MTW