‘The Producers’ works overtime to be outrageous
Zaniness is tough to capture on film.
What comes across as outrageous in live theater can seem forced when confined within a camera lens.
Such is the case with “The Producers,” a faithful adaptation of the Mel Brooks Broadway musical in which a majority of actors reprise their colorful stage roles. The “zany” performances are like a well-oiled machine, and, consequently, much of the movie comes across as mechanical.
Brooks’ central idea is still a gem: A shoddy Broadway producer (Nathan Lane) and his twitchy accountant (Matthew Broderick) realize they can earn more money with a flop than with a hit, so they go about mounting the worst show they can find.
They find a jackbooted German (Will Ferrell) who concocts “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.” They hire a flamboyantly inept director (Tony Award-winner Gary Beach reprising his role as an individual more gay than all five Village People combined).
But the fey Nazi images that shocked audiences in Brooks’ 1968 comedy on which the musical is based don’t have the same impact in 2005.
The original Zero Mostel/Gene Wilder film was a manic, in-your-face delight. And when the showstopping title number was finally unveiled – complete with a chorus line of goose-stepping storm troopers – it was truly outrageous. Keep in mind, most of the audience at that point had personally experienced World War II.
But that is ancient history to people these days. The play would now have to be called “Springtime for Osama” to generate the same kind of aghast reaction.
Since the Broadway version was so successful, it’s not surprising that career choreographer and first-time director Susan Stroman was reticent to veer from this plot. But what works in a nearly three-hour stage production feels bloated in a similarly paced feature. There are at least three songs (two in the third act) that could be cut with minimal effect to the story that would tighten up the picture considerably. Most of the songs are forgettable, anyway.
Stroman also feels little compulsion to remove the musical too far from its stagebound roots. Aside from a few outdoor sequences, all the action takes place on sets that could have been transported straight from the theater to the soundstage. She primarily shoots the piece with medium shots, as if you’re sitting in the 30th row of a live play.
Such a lack of vision on her part makes what could be a dynamic experience often quite stale.
Yet there is a reason this anticipated blockbuster remains entertaining: The cast knows how to work the material. Lane is charming, Beach is hilarious, Ferrell is freakish, and Uma Thurman is smokin’ hot as their casting couch-loving secretary Ulla. (It’s refreshing to see the “Kill Bill” standout appear in a movie cleaned up instead of slathered in blood and dirt.)
Broderick is somewhat less praiseworthy. Those who have seen the 1968 “Producers” will be hard-pressed to favorably compare Broderick to the great Wilder – a man who could patent zaniness. Broderick’s character is supposed to be a pale, nervous weenie, but he’s dominated by every cast member that he’s matched up with.
At times he actually seems to be doing an impression of Wilder, as during the famous, “I’m wet … and I’m hysterical” speech. The main difference is Wilder’s riff was sidesplittingly funny. Broderick’s garners some sparse chuckles.
In “The Producers,” after “Springtime for Hitler” becomes a success, Lane says, “We produced the wrong play, with the wrong cast and the wrong director. Where did we go right?”
With this latest adaptation, Mel Brooks can ask himself, “We produced the right play, with the right cast (mostly) and the wrong director. Did we go wrong?”