Growing up, I had a very close friend that was pretty much the only person with whom I could see or discuss movies. Chalk it up to a healthy respect for communities of informed judgment, but some people carry more weight than others with me when it comes to recommending films. Sure, there’s a negative end of the spectrum, where you end up avoiding movies just because the person that recommends them to you might be that creepy guy that always tried to rub girls’ shoulders in high school, and nobody wants to be that guy or rent the twisted anime he’s trying to shove down your throat, but my friend was different. He and I got along great when it came to movies. And it was under his guidance that, sometime early in high school, I was introduced to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the comedian’s first turn behind the camera. It was an auspicious beginning for the man whose career would one day peter into Dracula: Dead and Loving It and an odd running guest stint on “Mad About You.” Still, I enjoyed the film. There’s something in a Mel Brooks movie that aims right at the 14-year-old boy in all of us, a mixture of fart jokes and epic cleavage that wants nothing more than to please the lowest common denominator. Indeed, I would come to enjoy Mel Brooks comedies in a way only a high-school boy can; Robin Hood: Men in Tights was crafted on high by the gods of 9th-grade humor. And so, albeit on a base level consisting of hormones and textbook fees, I really enjoyed The Producers. There was almost something enjoyable in the fact that only young men who trafficked in obscure films as a way of fending off pubescent suicidal tendencies would be able to recognize the source of quotes like “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party.” And, well, Nathan Lane pretty much shot that to hell.
Winning something like 337 Tony awards after its Broadway debut a few years ago, The Producers, now a musical by Brooks based on his first film, became the kind of annoyingly ubiquitous cultural event that’s impossible to avoid, like “The O.C.” The musical even toured, featuring the what-must-have-been-disappointing pairing of Jason Alexander and Martin Short, but it was the Lane and Broderick show that had ‘em flocking from the Paramus Senior Center to catch the hottest ticket in town. The plot, carried over from the original film, is the same: Flim-flam producer Max Bialystock (Lane) and nerdy accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) hatch a plan to raise extra capital for a play they intend to fail, letting them abscond with the cash they bilked from little old ladies and living the life of luxury. So they plan to produce a play called Springtime for Hitler, about the Fuhrer’s love life and heroic leadership of Germany, which they figure will tank instantly and send them into the black.
Now, I’ve seen a fair number of musicals in my day, quite a few over my objections. I grew up in a household that loved Rogers and Hammerstein, whose movies seemed to me to be (a) 7 hours long and (b) utterly pointless. They lacked emotion, pacing, acting, dialogue, and pretty much everything a film can lack. And of course, so many girls in high school liked Grease that I became convinced that every one of them must be insane. It wasn’t until I saw Moulin Rouge that I realized I didn’t hate all musicals, in fact, just the opposite: The right song at the right time could pretty much tear me apart.
But this new version of The Producers, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who performed the same tasks for the Broadway musical, falls flat. Lifelessly staged and clumsily edited, the film is too much what it wants to be and not enough of what it should be. That is, it’s basically a filmed version of the stage musical, and not an entertaining film in its own right. Everything from Lane’s grotesquely over-the-top facial contortions, to the dead beats built-in after jokes for applause, to the weird way the actors look you right in the eye when they finish a big number and hold the position for a few seconds; well, it’s all fine for the stage, but on celluloid it’s a different matter. Film is a medium of subtlety, which isn’t to say there isn’t room for outrageous characters or absurd plotlines. But emotions register more easily on film than they do on stage, and while there’s a need with the latter to perform to the back of the house, the former allows for more low-key emoting. All this to say: Lane hams his way through the whole affair like it’s The Birdcage 2, and it’s as uninvolving as can be. He makes asides to statues, but what plays like comedy (or whatever) on Broadway comes across as amateurish filmmaking.
As mentally unstable German playwright Franz Liebkind, Will Ferrell does what he seems to do best now, which is to scream and expect us to laugh. And it’s hard not to. I mean, he’s supposed to be talking normally, but he’s not. He’s screaming. He’s doing something you don’t normally do. Get it? Get it? Trust me, it’s hilarious. And Broderick, the strongest performer here, also becomes weighed down by playing a broad caricature of a nebbish number-cruncher rather than an actual character. And the presence of Uma Thurman as Ulla, the producers’ sexpot receptionist-turned-star, is just bizarre. You almost can’t believe you’re watching this dreary madness play out, but the excessive running time of 2 hours 15 minutes gives you plenty of opportunities to realize the truth of the horrors upon the screen.
Stroman’s choreography is solid, but the direction and camera work are lazy. Most scenes play out in static medium shots, with almost no effort made to actually compose the actors or sets within the frame. Stroman’s too busy worrying about preserving the integrity of the musical to worry about the harm being done to the film. It feels like she set the camera on a tripod and told the directors of photography to go home. Overhyped though it was, Rob Marshall’s Chicago at least had a sense of being a film, of using the medium to achieve things not possible on the stage. But Stroman never thought that far ahead.
And so, the brief but torrid affair between me and The Producers has come to an end. It’s a shame, too, what with the lack of quality film musicals being released now. Ultimately, it’s the death knell for Mel Brooks comedies as they used to exist. The racial riffs of Blazing Saddles and the brilliant turn by Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein have given way to even cheaper pleas for acceptance to Middle America. For all its Broadway pedigree and breathless promotion, The Producers is nothing but a stale version of what it used to be; the name may be the same, but the freshness is gone.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.The Producers / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()