Robin Williams once said, “When in doubt, go for the dick joke”. The Producers, the film remake of the play based on the 1968 Mel Brooks classic, contains six dick jokes and six good laughs. The advance hoopla for the film generated great expectations, but Producers amounts, in the end, to mucho doo-doo about nothing.
The plot is simple. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), a crooked Broadway producer, teams up with Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), a neurotic, nebbishy accountant, to put on a play that's guaranteed to fail. The idea is to sell the play over and over to investors, then, when it flops, take the money and run to Rio. They select a work, "Springtime for Hitler", by Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), a reclusive Nazi. Max gets the seed money by seducing rich old ladies, and an incompetent director is hired to guarantee failure.
Before seeing the film, and holding tight to my memories of the original, I had reservations about the casting of two of the characters. First, Will Ferrell as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Kenneth Mars, in that role, seemed an impossible act to follow, and the thought of him being played as a drunken frat-boy was too much for me to bear. Mars was actually Mel Brooks’ second choice for the part, the first being Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman opted for The Graduate. Nuff said. I also had doubts about Uma Thurman as Swedish sexretary Ulla. Not bimboesque enough, too classy-looking, and could she dance, I thought. I shouldn’t have worried. She is wonderfully funny, sexy, and riveting in the role. And can she dance! Her Swedish accent slips a bit, but then so do her clothes, so who’s complaining?
Ferrell plays Liebkind with an appealing mix of menace, sentimentality and likability. His nazified pet pigeons are hysterical. Franz leads Max and Leo in a Bavarian "schuhplattler" slap-dance reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. This dance originated in the Eighteenth Century as a way for men to impress women with their athletic ability. (“Ach, he can schlap my knees any time!”)
Gary Beach is campily hilarious as world’s worst director Roger Debris, a queen to depose all queens, as is Roger Bart, playing his “common-law assistant”, the hissing, gleefully malevolent Carmen Ghia. John Lovitz, as Bloom's tyrannical, tan-from-a-bottle boss is, well, John Lovitz. I haven't said anything yet about the two male leads, for good reason. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick had been playing their roles on Broadway since 2001. Shot claustrophobically close much of the time, the pair’s exhausted shtick is bum-numbing. Broderick, bland and dead-eyed, recites his lines like an automaton. Lane postures, mugs, emotes, and periodically turns into a screaming incarnation of Lou Costello, whom he vaguely resembles. The chemistry between the leads is like two inert gases that don’t mix, let alone combine. The experience of watching them is like having front and center theater seats and seeing not only every physical flaw and bodily quirk, but even the saliva spraying out of their mouths as they spew noisily to the back row of an imaginary theater.
Director Susan Stroman's "technique" is to point the camera straight ahead and shoot. For the accomplished director/choreographer of the Broadway Producers, the world apparently remains a stage. The result is, simply put, a film of a play.
There are many dead spots in The Producers, particularly when Lane and Broderick are on stage, er, screen, alone. It takes a Thurman, a Ferrell, a Bart or a Beach to bring some zip back to the embalmed proceedings. The film made me think of Bernie, the lovable corpse from Weekend at Bernie’s 1 and 2. In the latter, every time the music started, Bernie would rise from the dead and start boogying. When it stopped, he collapsed like a marionette with its strings cut. Here, it’s not the music that reanimates, but the supporting cast. The songs, written by Brooks, are largely mediocre and tedious to listen to, with the exception of “Springtime for Hitler” and “Keep it Gay”.
The deus-ex-machina ending feels abrupt and unsatisfying, though I was ready for the film to end one way or another. Should you get the urge to walk out, resist and stay for the closing credits. The accompanying ballad, sung by Will Ferrell, is hilarious, and makes sitting through this well-intentioned but seriously flawed film almost worthwhile. Almost. As in all Brooks films, there are funny moments, but not nearly enough of them. One scene, where Max sees a life flashing before him, but it’s not his, is very, very similar to one of Woody Allen’s early standup routines. Hmm…
This is not the Mel Brooks of the original Producers, Young Frankenstein, or Blazing Saddles. This is the Brooks of Life Stinks, which stunk. While apparently trying to emulate great movie musicals such as Singing in the Rain, poor Mel has slipped and fallen in a puddle. And that’s not funny, it’s sad.