As a young filmgoer, I was dazzled by the sheer outrageousness of Mel Brooks' The Producers, which made its appearance in the flower-power, tie-dyed year of 1968. Political correctness didn't rule the cultural landscape the way it does today, but the idea of a sunny musical about Nazism was still a breath-taking shock. Charlie Chaplin dared to make fun of Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), but that was before the worst years of the Holocaust. Brooks dared to turn the whole world upside down. He made a comedy out of mass murder, and he made heroes out of two schlubs whose greedy con scheme involved bilking little old ladies out of their pension checks. The picture found a fan base among the rebellious youth of the day, and Brooks took home an original screenplay Oscar.
Fast-forward three decades through Broadway musicals made from such movies as La Cage aux Folles and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Brooks sells tickets at $100 a pop for a Tony Award-winning smash that repackages the same material with singing and dancing. I never got to New York for the musical version of The Producers, but now that there's a movie of the musical, I can't decide whether I wish I had or I'm glad I didn't.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Strohman, with music and lyrics by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, The Producers stars Broadway headliners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as our anti-hero swindlers. In the role created by Zero Mostel, Lane is Max Bialystock, a washed up theater producer whose most recent travesty was Funny Boy, a musical adaptation of Hamlet. Broderick is Max's partner in crime, Leo Bloom, a nebbish accountant who figures out that you can make a fortune with a flop if you over-finance it and close the production quickly enough. Max and Leo identify the worst play of all time, Springtime for Hitler by neo-Nazi kook Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), attach as director the Ed Wood of the theater, drag queen Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), select as cast members rejects from The Gong Show and make their reservations for life on the beach in Rio. All Max has to do is seduce investment checks out of several dozen widows, and the partners can wait for the scathing reviews to make them fabulously rich.
Because The Producers was such a hit on the New York stage, I assumed that Brooks had done something he hadn't. I assumed he had written hilarious songs to supplement his long established wild premise. But he didn't. Instead, with only a couple of exceptions, we get the original story compressed to make room for songs and dance routines that are almost instantly forgettable. "Unhappy" has a finger snapping rhythm as Leo works the adding machine at his accounting office and owns up to his existential discontent. And "Betrayed" is clever in the way nothing else in the picture approaches as Max reflects on the series of events that land him in the hoosegow. But everything else in this musical treatment of The Producers feels like whip cream sprayed on last week's roast.
Uma Thurman contributes about a mile expanse of leg in her role as the English-challenged Ulla, the Swedish secretary/receptionist/dancer Max and Leo hire, which merely provides a series of sex gags that seem lifted from a 1930s vaudeville act that closed in the Catskills. Uma sizzles, but her character fizzles. Ferrell's performance, meanwhile, assures that Kenneth Mars from the movie original will remain the definitive Franz. As in most all his work, Ferrell stands just outside his character, pointing at his work and nudging us to see just how "crazy" he can be. Mars gave Franz an edge that made him genuinely loony. Lane is the real deal, a rootin' tootin' showman whose natural medium is the wide-open stage where he can let completely loose. His dancing is natural, and he's got a big voice. Broderick, in comparison, is overmatched. His dancing is proficient but studied, and though he can carry a tune, his voice can't carry the third row. They had to have miked him for live theater. Both stars stick with the broad gestures of live performance, and that makes them seem hammy in the intimate medium of film.
Theater audiences pay so much for tickets nowadays that they arrive determined to enjoy themselves. And that, I suspect, accounts for a lot of The Producers' success on Broadway. I will concede, however, that probably everything about this musical material works better live. I don't discard the idea that I might have liked the theatrical version had I seen it. On film, though, little about a musical Producers works at all. Your toes don't tap, and your sides don't ache from laughing. But your eyes do get strained from squinting at your watch while wondering if the end is finally near.
- Matthew Broderick, Will Ferrell and Nathan Lane ham it up in the film version of the smash Broadway musical The Producers.