Director : Susan Stroman
Screenplay : Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan (based on the musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on a by Mel Brooks)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Nathan Lane (Max Bialystock), Matthew Broderick (Leo Bloom), Uma Thurman (Ulla), Will Ferrell (Franz Liebkind), Roger Bart (Carmen Ghia), Gary Beach (Roger De Bris), Eileen Essell (Hold-Me Touch-Me), Jon Lovitz (Mr. Marks)
The Producers was Mel Brooks’ feature film debut back in 1968, and its outrageous satire of questionable show-business scruples announced the full arrival of a major comic talent. Brooks’ early 1970s films continued that streak, with Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) marking a single-year one-two comedic punch that will probably never be rivaled again by a single filmmaker. Alas, his films began to wane after that, until they sank into almost embarrassing mediocrity in the early ’90s with silly spoofs like Robin Hood: Men in Tight (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
So, in 2001, it was that much more of a surprise when Brooks re-remerged, not on the big screen, but on Broadway, with a lavish, hilarious musical version of The Producers. Walking away with a handful of Tonys and the enviable status of being the one “must-see” musical of that year, The Producers was reborn for a whole new generation. And now, under the guidance of director Susan Stroman, who also directed and choreographed the show on stage, the musical version of The Producers has been re-inscribed on the screen, making it surely the first time a musical version of a movie has been turned back into a movie (although it won’t be the last--the musical version of John Waters’ Hairspray is currently in production).
The film version reassembles most of the original Broadway cast, including Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock, a fading Broadway producer who has sunk to fleecing little old ladies out of money in exchange for sexual favors, and Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom, the neurotic accountant who unwittingly points out to Bialystock that he could make more money from a flop than a hit. This sets off a dubious scheme in which Max and Leo attempt to assemble to worst Broadway show imaginable, one that is guaranteed to close in one night, thus allowing them to make off with the rest of the front money they raised for its production.
The play they decide to produce is a little gem called Springtime for Hitler, a loving apologia for the Third Reich written by a deranged German named Franz Liebkind. Casting Will Ferrell as Liebkind is The Producers’ one bit of all-out stunt casting, and it pays off quite well. Although Ferrell was surely brought on board to appeal to the all-important young viewer contingent who can quote Old School (2003) and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) by heart, his over-the-top comic sensibilities turn out to be right in line with the rest of the film. In fact, his ridiculous musical number “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” is one of the film’s comic highlights. The only other bit of Hollywood casting is Uma Thurman as sweet-and-sexy Swedish bombshell Ulla, who works as Max and Leo’s secretary and ends up falling for the timid Leo.
Having a bad play is not enough, though; Max and Leo need a terrible director. So, they knock on the door of Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and his common-law assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), both of whom are so swishy and flamboyantly gay that their production team is actually dressed like The Village People. Although he at first refuses the assignment, De Bris eventually takes it on when he realizes he can make it his own, especially by jazzing it up and giving it a happy ending in which Germany wins World War II.
The “Springtime for Hitler” musical sequence in the original film is one of cinema’s most outlandish comic moments, a production number so tacky, crude, insensitive, and downright insane that you have no response but to laugh hysterically. The new version delivers the goods, as well, although its effect is somewhat deflated by the fact that it appears midway through a movie that has already been packed with giddy-goofy musical numbers (Brooks wrote all the music and lyrics himself, thus his outlandish sense of humor is not channeled through someone else). The Producers sags only when it is more conventional, such as Leo’s “I Wanna Be a Producer” number or “That Face,” his flirty duet with Ulla.
Stroman, so brilliant on stage, turns out to be the film’s chief liability. She doesn’t seem to have the visual cinematic gifts of other stage-directors-turned-film-directors (think Sam Mendes or Julie Taymor), and most of the film has a distinctly flat, stagebound quality that detracts heavily from its zany rhythms and vividness (when the film breaks out of sets and into the open air of New York City, it somehow stills feels oddly constricted). This turns out to be a serious drag, especially since The Producers is otherwise a consistently funny and effective remake, with its dated stereotypes and outlandish farce taking on a whole new vibe of postmodern rib-tickling.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Universal Pictures