|The Producers (2005)
Starring: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Roger Bart, Gary Leach
Director: Susan Stroman
“The Producers” is a nonstop laugh riot, provided that a) you have not seen Mel Brooks’ 1968 original, b) you have not seen the smash hit play on Broadway, or any of its touring counterparts, and c) you think flaming homosexuals are really, really funny. Between this and the remake of “The Longest Yard,” it’s hard to tell which movie sends gay rights father back in time. The movie’s only moment of subtlety lies in having an openly gay stage performer play the womanizing lead role. As an adaptation of a musical, it is unbelievably faithful. So faithful, in fact, that those who have seen the play need not bother seeing the movie, stunt casting be damned.
The story begins with washed up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), who’s five minutes away from being finished. A nebbish accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), is assigned to go over his accounting books, and in doing so discovers a loophole to producing plays that is music to Max’s ears: produce a surefire flop, and you stand a chance to make even more money than you can if you make a hit. Max wastes no time in hitting up his elderly female benefactors for money and finding the worst play imaginable, settling on “Springtime for Hitler,” a “gay romp” written by staunch Fuhrer devotee Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). Max then hires Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), a cross-dressing director who is, in Max’s estimation, the worst director on Broadway (one memorable exchange from the original has Leo asking, “Do you think he'll do it?” “Only if we ask him,” Max replies). Max is so confident in their failure that he ropes in a leggy Swede named Ulla (Uma Thurman) to answer phones and shake her groove thing. The play, of course, becomes a smash hit, and Max and Leo are in deep trouble.
This is a difficult movie to view objectively, since it is the only story that comes to mind that went from the screen to the stage and back to the screen again, in stage form. It’s like that “NewsRadio” episode when Jimmy James had his book, “Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer,” translated from English to Japanese and back into English, whereupon it became “Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler.” Broderick is at his best when he’s doing the bits that were not required of Gene Wilder, his character’s ancestor. In the other scenes that are in both films, he gives it the old college try, but is no match for Wilder’s manic neurosis. Lane fares better, though Lane has to deal with the ghost of Zero Mostel as well. The role of Ulla is considerably, um, fleshed out here, but not even the lovely Uma Thurman can touch the majestic cheesecake quotient of Lee Meredith in her prime.
What ultimately sinks “The Producers,” besides the preponderance of way-too-easy gay jokes (too many to mention, but they’re all in the same vein as the “French Mistake” sequence in “Blazing Saddles”), is the book of songs. The one good song (“Springtime for Hitler”) is from the original film; the tunes written for Broadway, frankly, are boring. Even the titles are boring. “We Can Do It”; “I Wanna Be a Producer”; “That Face”; “’Til Him.” For a guy who’s trying to send up musical comedy, his approach is positively old fashioned. Granted, subtlety has never been Brooks’ strong suit, but he’s painting with a broader brush than usual here.
“The Producers” is perfectly competent in its own way, but in terms of movie musicals, it doesn’t have a leg up on its peers in any department. It isn’t funnier (“South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut”), better choreographed (this list could go for days, so I’ll stick with old standby “West Side Story”), or more moving (“Rent,” “Hair”). It’s just “The Producers,” a movie about cons and queens. If you really value your time above all things, the original film version is funnier, and 45 minutes shorter. You know what to do.
The single-disc release of "The Producers" opens with director Susan Stroman singing to the tune of the Universal theme music. She goes on to inform the audience that Mel Brooks originally wrote the lyrics to be played during the theatrical release of the film, but were regretattably taken out of the final cut. This marks the beginning of the DVD's audio commentary - which has Stroman basically reading a prepared discussion from a sheet of paper - and though the track is quite informative, it proves very dull after some time. The rest of the special features include a behind-the-scenes look at the “I Wanna Be a Producer” musical number, eight deleted/extended scenes and a lengthy outtakes reel. Not bad for a film that flopped pretty hard at the box office, but I can't see why anybody would want to see it more than once.