The Producers (review)
Look, tickets for The Producers on Broadway while Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were starring in it were something like $125, and that’s before all the service charges and handling fees and “donations” to theater restoration funds and taxes and a $12.50 glass of wine at intermission. And that was if you could get them. The demand to see these two do Mel Brooks was obscene, so even if you didn’t blanch at the price of admission, you still might not have had the opportunity to check them out.
So is it really such a bad thing that this movie adaptation of the show is barely an adaptation? Is it such a crime that it looks like theater vet Susan Stroman just plopped the company in front of a static camera and told ’em to go out there, kids, and put on a show? I don’t think so. Sure, this Producers is stagey and over-the-top, and experiencing it is kinda like sitting in the front row of the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, but that’s sorta neat. It’s not every day you’re gonna see even someone already cartoony and larger than life like Lane get so big and broad and googly-eyed and play to the nonexistent nosebleed seats, but damned if there isn’t a wonderfully old-fashioned Technicolor kind of charm to that.
And I think this may have been the best way to go with a new movie of The Producers, cuz to pull back and make it smaller and more cinematic would have made it, well, Brooks’s 1968 flick, and there’s no topping that little slice of movie heaven. Best not to think of Stroman’s Producers as competing with 1968, just complementing (and complimenting) it. The story is the same: Legendarily awful Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Lane: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Teacher’s Pet) and nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick: You Can Count on Me, Election) come up with a scheme to bilk theater investors, and make themselves rich in the process, by selling a whole bunch of 100-percent shares in what they intend to be the worst show the Great White Way has ever seen — a guaranteed flop means all those investors lose all their dough… right into the pockets of Bialystock and Bloom. But when their worst-show-ever, Springtime for Hitler, is a surprise smash, well, the hit hits the fan.
What’s different is the tone. Brooks’s 1968 film is a brilliant black comedy, bitter and shocking in its time in a way that today’s audiences — and I include myself in that, not having been born until a year after its release — surely cannot imagine, arriving so soon after the end of WWII and when the extent of the horror of the Holocaust was only beginning to be comprehended. Plenty movie fans today, though, have no trouble appreciating the incoherent rage and sweaty desperation of Brooks’s film, especially in the frenzied and frantic performances of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. None of that is here — Lane and Broderick’s Bialystock and Bloom are genuinely sweet under their neuroses, and Will Ferrell’s (Bewitched, Kicking & Screaming) Nazi playwright/Hitler acolyte Franz Liebkind is merely a goofball instead of a vicious satire. (Uma Thurman’s [Prime, Be Cool] Ulla, the ditzy secretary, here is upgraded to a smart broad playing dumb to get what she wants; Thurman may be the one great revelation of the film, playing comic and bombshell-y in a way she hasn’t before, and almost steals the movie.) If there’s any parody to be found here, it’s gentle and in Gary Beach’s Broadway director Roger De Bris and his assistant/lover Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart: The Stepford Wives), both men reprising their stage roles — if the 1968 film was poking fun at gays with these flamboyant characters, Stroman’s film pokes fun at such stereotypes of gays.
“Keep It Gay,” they sing, a primer on what audiences want, but for all that the tune is parodying Broadway, it clearly served as a guideline for Brooks’s revamping of the show for the stage, and for Stroman’s film. This Producers is bright and sprightly and cheerful — delightfully so — in a way that fans of the ’68 film may take issue with. There’s nothing in the least bit controversial about this Producers, which may offend some who cherish cynicism and intellectual provocation. But the old flick is still there for those who want it — and this new one may introduce a few adventurous mainstream moviegoers to its dark charms.