Reproducing Mel Brooks' still-running Broadway smash so literally you can practically see the proscenium arch, new pic is undeniably stagy, even clunky, and its commercial fate rests on whether auds find the blunt theatrical artifice and playing-to-the-balcony performance style off-putting or endearing.
So determinedly old-fashioned it makes a strong claim to being the best film musical of 1959, “The Producers” comes full circle back to the screen 38 years after the original with much, if not all, of its mirth intact. Reproducing Mel Brooks’ still-running Broadway smash so literally you can practically see the proscenium arch, new pic is undeniably stagy, even clunky, and its commercial fate rests on whether auds find the blunt theatrical artifice and playing-to-the-balcony performance style off-putting or endearing. Older viewers should turn this exuberant, sometimes hilarious picture into a moderate hit domestically for Universal, although Sony/Columbia’s prospects overseas look shaky.
With most of the key cast and creative personnel from the legit production returning for the screen rendition, Brooks obviously did not want to mess with success, even though just turning the cameras on a winning stage venture doesn’t guarantee bigscreen success. Given that “The Producers” is all about putting on a show, it’s entirely proper the picture retains its theatrical feel. Still, it’s been a very long time since a stage musical was so minimally reconceived for motion pictures.
It’s hard to guess how many of those who go to this latest incarnation of “The Producers” will be seeing it for the first time. Presumably most people are familiar with the classic premise in which unscrupulous theater producer Max Bialystock enlists uptight accountant Leo Bloom in a scheme to make a pot of money from a play designed to be a one-night flop.
A seeming majority of the scenes are devoted to someone, usually Max, trying to convince somebody else to do something that no one in their right mind would do. In the long opening scene in his messy office across from Sardi’s, the desperate Max attempts to convince ever-cautious Leo to go into business with him. The high-pitched hysteria at which this scene is played by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who made the roles their own and then some in the Tony-drenched 2001 Broadway production, generates some concerns about where the tone of the movie can possibly go from here, as does stage helmer and choreographer Susan Stroman’s uncertainty about where to place the camera other than front-row center (it’s worth remembering that Brooks’ own direction of the 1967 original was pretty rudimentary).
Helping get the pic off the soundstage is “Along Came Bialy,” in which little old ladies with walkers — Max’s gullible investors –pursue Max across Fifth Avenue into Central Park. And while this number, like most of the musical interludes, doesn’t pack quite the brassy knockout punch it did onstage, pic has found its legs by the time Max and Leo set their sights on producing can’t-miss disaster “Springtime for Hitler.”
No one, including the reasonably cast Will Ferrell here, could match the inspired lunacy of Kenneth Mars’ original turn as the demented, fuehrer-loving playwright Franz Liebkind, who has trained his pet pigeons to wing salute and gives his producers Nazi armbands to wear.
But things switch into high gear when Max and Leo recruit cross-dressing director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) to mount the production. Roger’s aide de camp is played by Roger Bart as the ultimate swish, mincing queen, pushing the old stereotype so far with his endlessly held hissed s’s, rolled eyes and slinky manner that he’s even more hilarious onscreen than he was onstage, stealing every scene he’s in even when relegated to the background.
“The Producers” reaches it peak on the tumultuous opening night, with Max and Leo confident the cat’s in the bag when the glamorous crowd reacts with gaping stupefaction at the show’s melodious paean to Adolf and the choreographed conquest of Europe, staged in gloriously over-the-top style. It’s only when De Bris steps in for the injured Franz as Hitler and sits on the edge of the stage, Judy Garland-style, that the fleeing audience is won over.
With hundreds of performances in New York and London under their belts, Lane and Broderick have their characterizations down cold. As the manic Max, Lane is big, broad and massively entertaining, great at belting out his songs and undone only somewhat in what onstage was his triumphant moment, the recapitulation number “Betrayed.” Originally done at an even more breakneck pace, the tour de force is performed from Max’s jail cell and, for maximum effect, should have been presented in one take. Instead, Stroman has cut it into bits and pieces, trying to lend it extra energy when none is needed.
Broderick proves an effectively uptight foil, but is alternately overly shrill and frozen-pasty in the early going before loosening up to win the favors of the va-va-voom office secretary played by a game but ultimately miscast Uma Thurman.
Snappy tunes, which possess the old-time Broadway spirit infused with Catskills-style irreverent humor, keep things bouncing along, and Mark Friedberg’s production design and William Ivey Long’s costumes rejoice in their self-conscious theatricality. End credits provide the opportunity for entirely appropriate curtain calls, capped by a shot of Brooks himself telling any stragglers, “Get out! It’s over!”