Mel Brooks' The Producers arrived in 1968 reputed as a movie to offend everyone. More than 30 years later, it became a Broadway musical tame enough to be a de facto New York tourist attraction, about as edgy as a Central Park carriage ride. Susan Stroman, the musical's director and choreographer, shepherds The Producers back onto the big screen, but the latest version will offend audiences not with the content of the gags, but their shrill delivery and dusty datedness. The Producers' tone-deaf execution could be a calculated mistake worthy of its self-sabotaging showmen.
The Producers' original Oscar-winning screenplay features one of the comedy genre's most perfect plots. Washed-up impresario Max Bialystock (now played by Nathan Lane) and number-crunching ninny Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) oversell their latest project, cobble together the least competent show conceivable and plan to embezzle their investors' funds after it flops. But when audiences misperceive Springtime for Hitler as a satiric masterpiece, Bialystock and Bloom's scheme explodes in their faces.
Stroman seems intent on recording the Broadway production on celluloid for posterity, without appreciating the difference between stage and screen -- that close-ups, for instance, make things look really big. The Producers contains some of the most hammy and artificial acting you've ever seen. In his early scenes, Broderick appears to be doing his worst possible Jerry Lewis impression, although he'd probably be easier to take seen smaller and farther away.
Lane may not be as volcanic as Zero Mostel's original Bialystock, but his fiery slapstick grace fares better than his screen partner. Will Ferrell frequently finds himself stranded as the deranged Nazi playwright. The former "Saturday Night Live" player fares best when leavening his roles with irony, and the film's sole understated moment comes during the closing credits with Ferrell's breathy, "romantic" version of "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop." Uma Thurman strikes some absurdly beautiful poses as Swedish bombshell Ulla, but she gets little to do beyond radiating a kind of pristine sex appeal.
The film becomes tolerable -- and not a moment too soon -- with its big production numbers, starting with Broderick's "I Want to Be a Producer" at a Dickensian accounting firm. Sincere ballads like "That Face" and "'Til Him" induce narcolepsy, but Brooks is unquestionably a master at catchy "joke" songs like Bialystock's seductive "Along Came Bialy," the play-recapping "Betrayed" and the central showstopper, "Springtime for Hitler" -- now expanded with Gary Beach's superbly histrionic take on Der Führer, "Heil Myself."
The Producers reveals some unpleasant notions of what's fair game for mockery. The film minimizes some of the play's ethnic jokes, removing a black accountant's brief "Ol' Man River" parody and, for a Mel Brooks film, surprisingly many of the Jewish references. The Producers reserves most of its derision for thick-accented Germans, horny little old ladies and homosexuals. "Keep It Gay" quite literally trots out the sibilant caricatures. Beach's queeny director and Roger Bart as his catty assistant paradoxically provide the best performances and the worst stereotypes. They camp it up so outrageously, they turn a pair of crude clichés into dazzlingly nitwitted divas.
The Producers' timing feels especially bad during a national conversation about the acceptability of Brokeback Mountain's queer cowboys. So we can tolerate Beach in a gown that looks like the Chrysler Building, but get bent out of shape over Heath Ledger in denim and a cowboy hat? The Producers even includes a "back in the closet!" joke -- assuming it is a joke.
Brooks genuinely broke cultural taboos with earlier films like the original The Producers and Blazing Saddles, but he always relied on broad, burlesque-house shtick that was already looking long in the tooth by the Nixon administration. With both its loving musical choreography and its antique comedy styles, Stroman's The Producers feels ready to be interred in a time capsule. And at least half of it can stay there.
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