The Producers

Dec 28, 2005 at 12:00 am

If you want a textbook example of how not to bring a Tony Award-winning musical to the big screen, you have only to look at the lifeless train wreck that is The Producers.

Susan Stroman, the celebrated director-choreographer of the stage production, proves to be a painfully inept and unimaginative filmmaker, turning the rambunctious Broadway hit into a cinematic dud. The performances are overblown, the musical numbers have no visual panache and, despite the efforts of two cinematographers, numerous shots are shamefully out of focus. It’s hard to imagine a worse example of big budget incompetence this year.

Faithful to Mel Brooks’ original, this film-based-on-the-musical-based-on-the-film is noisy, labored and surprisingly short on laughs. The 1968 movie was essentially one fantastic joke set up by 60 minutes of amusing shtick. Shyster theater producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) concoct a scheme to make millions by producing the greatest flop in Broadway history, a musical so lousy it’s guaranteed to open and close on the same night: Springtime for Hitler. The very same plot plays out in the recent stage version but is bolstered (or, depending on your viewpoint, undermined) by big showstopping musical numbers.

It’s obvious that Stroman wants to evoke the Golden Age of Musicals, when characters burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, she hasn’t a clue how to make this work effectively on screen. The picture is drained of all vitality, constrained by a static frame and an absence of visual wit. It looks flat, ugly and garish.

Worse still, Stroman doesn’t understand how to shoot or edit comedy. The rapid-fire one-liners, puns and asides fall flat. There’s no finesse or breathing room, just a desperately aggressive attempt to have fun, damnit. But watching 129 minutes of histrionic lather and flamboyant posturing isn’t funny; it’s just exhausting

Revisiting their Broadway roles, Nathan Lane is Bialystock and Matthew Broderick plays Bloom. Lane grabs the reins and makes the role his own; he’s the most entertaining thing in the film. Brash and frenetic, he shamelessly plays to the cheap seats but wins us over with the sheer force of his charisma.

Broderick, however, delivers a dead-eyed performance that suggests he burned out on Leo a long time ago. As Johnny Depp learned in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder’s shoes are simply too big (and brilliant) to be easily filled. There’s something maniacal and dangerous about Wilder’s comic inventions. His conniption fit over the “blue blankie” struck the perfect balance between childlike desperation and psychotic panic — but Broderick’s character just seems whiny. It’s an empty performance and there’s no chemistry between him and ... anyone.

The rest of the cast is equally mixed. Uma Thurman — who seems to get more beautiful every year — gives her all to the thankless role of Ulla, the Swedish sexpot. She’s not great, she’s not bad, but she sure does try. As playwright Franz Liebkind, Will Ferrell is never allowed to let his freak flag fly at full mast, and turns in one of the least funny performances of his career. Only during the final credits does he redeem himself with a hilarious ballad. Gary Beach and Roger Bart are terrific as cross-dressing director Roger De Bris and his queeny assistant, Carmen Ghia. They infuse the film with some much-needed energy and get the best laughs. Unfortunately, their musical number, Keep It Gay, stoops to obvious sissy jokes and tired references to the Village People.

Ultimately, what’s most startling about this version is how toothless and bland it all seems. Maybe it’s the extra quarter century, or the addition of dead-in-the-water ballads, or Stroman’s complete inability to harness satire, but the film’s central conceit feels profoundly dated and a little bit offensive. One has to ask if this version brings enough freshness to the material to justify a remake. The answer is an unqualified “no.” Apparently making fun of Nazis just isn’t as hilarious as it used to be.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].