Overdone "Producers" still gets laughs

Jan. 3, 2006, midnight | By Isaac Arnsdorf | 15 years, 5 months ago

Screen adaptation satisfies but can't top the live musical

Stretching the bounds of recycling even by remake-addicted Hollywood's standards, Mel Brooks's "Producers" franchise has finally come full circle. The 2001 musical based on the 1968 movie returns to the screen in its latest (and hopefully last) incarnation as a movie musical. For anyone who missed out on Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on the Great White Way, the movie version offers a sampling of the Broadway magic but doesn't come close to surpassing the live performance.

In a nostalgic, smoky old New York, burned-out Broadway has-been Max Bialystock (Lane) longs for another hit until a pathetically timid accountant, Leo Bloom (Broderick), waltzes into his office with a cockamamie scheme. The plan entails raising excessive funds to produce a cheep sure-fire flop and then pocketing the leftover cash. But if the show succeeds, the producers would face jail time, being unable to repay their investors. Together, Bialystock and Bloom launch their plot to find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director in town, raise $2 million, find the worst actors in New York, open on Broadway and close the same night.

Having originated and refined their respective roles over countless performances, Lane and Broderick are a triumphant pair. Lane masters every nuance and subtly of Bialystock's sleazy brashness, and Broderick engineers his character's panic-stricken, twerpy and lovestruck stages. They both have perfected each gesture, honed each expression and polished each punch line. Despite their innumerable collaborations, their chemistry and enthusiasm keeps their delivery fresh.

Also, joining them from the original Broadway cast are Gary Beach and Roger Bart as the flamboyant director and his assistant, both best described as (with apologies to "Mean Girls") too gay to function. The most surprisingly performances come from celebrity newcomers, including Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind, the blustering neo-Nazi playwright, and Uma Thurman as Ulla, the Swedish belle whose, er, talent earns her a special place in the production.

The movie essentially replicates its Broadway forerunner, except that everything is overdone—but then again, what has Mel Brooks ever done in moderation? The acting is more exaggerated, and every farce more utterly ridiculous, as a conga line is added to the outrageously offensive and hilarious "Keep It Gay." Most of the movie's jokes are too coarse and offensive to be sampled here. "The Producers" is not for sensitive viewers and will infuriate any contrary viewer like a vegetarian on a hunting trip. But anyone willing to indulge in the guilty pleasures of suppressed stereotypes and crude humor will wake up sore the next morning from endless rolls in the aisles.

The movie never really transcends the proscenium for which it is better suited. To compensate for the dearth of available camera angles, novice director Susan Stroman overuses stuffy close-ups. Perhaps more could have been expected of the movie with Brooks himself in the director's chair. The movie declines to venture away from the play's model and to capitalize on the advantages of the film medium. Many songs that should be colored by flashbacks and crosscutting remain simply singing to the camera, especially Bialystock's solo "Cell Block Tango," "Betrayed."

Also, rather than using film to show what can only be implied on stage, the movie still relies on theatric representation, such as Bialy's tap-dancing processional of little old ladies. Even the slightest deviations from the originally score are oddly irksome, and several of the omissions are unforgivable, especially the deleted numbers "Were Did We Go Right?" and "The King of Broadway." Another weakness of the film version is the absence of live audience participation, as the pauses left for laughter are particularly painful in a silent cinema.

In many places, the filmmakers border on lazy, as if unmotivated to serve up more effort or more money. The film's smugness in its winning source material and assured profit is obvious. Virtually guaranteed to earn big box office bucks, spending more to produce a better movie wouldn't have been worth it. Ironically, the movie thereby fulfills its own prophecy: "you can make more money with a flop than with a hit." Fortunately, Brooks doesn't stoop that low, and the movie still scores with irresistible comedy.

"The Producers" (134 minutes) at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references.

Isaac Arnsdorf. <span style='display: none;'>Isaac Arnsdorf is a perfectionistic grammar nerd with no sense of humor. According to co-editor Allie O'Hora, "he enjoys listening to rhythmless, atonal 'music' and reading the encyclopedia." He sleeps with the Manifesto under his pillow.</span> More »

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