Füehrers in love

Insert ménage à trois joke here.

Insert ménage à trois joke here.

Rated 2.0

I don’t like the big-screen adaptation of Broadway’s The Producers all that much, but I am somewhat grateful for it. With all that hype about Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, and how they took Mel Brooks’ funny directorial debut from the ‘60s and turned it into a modern musical, I’ve always been curious about the show. This film gives a taste of what the Broadway show was like, and all indications are that the show was pretty damned great.

The movie, however, has some big problems. Director Susan Stroman, who directed the stage show, seems to have trouble framing a motion picture. The visuals lack the sort of zip this story needs, and too many moments in the movie go flat. While some of the musical numbers are snappy enough, many of the dialogue scenes are painfully static.

The story remains basically the same as the original Brooks screenplay. Max Bialystock (Lane), disgraced Broadway producer, has been reduced to sexing up old ladies for checks to fund his plays. Impish accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) has been sent in to do his books, and his mind starts to ponder the oddities of the biz. While playing with the numbers, Bloom stumbles upon the realization that somebody could conceivably make more money with a flop than a hit.

Max likes the sounds of that and concocts a plot to make money from artistic disaster. A search for the world’s worst play turns up Springtime for Hitler; $2 million is raised courtesy of Max’s sexual services, and it should be dirty money in the bank for Max and Leo.

Then the play opens, is mistaken for satire, and becomes a critical and box-office hit.

The first chunk of the movie, before anybody starts singing, is very close to the original Brooks film. Broderick re-creates much of the routine originated by his predecessor in the role (Gene Wilder who, for the second time this year, after Willy Wonka, must watch another actor mess with his role). Broderick isn’t amazing as Bloom. In fact, he’s quite bad in the film’s first half, mugging as if he were on a live stage rather than making a movie. As the film progresses, he calms down a bit, but not enough to salvage his performance. One almost gets the sense from his work that he had a lousy time making the movie.

His partner, Nathan Lane, fares much better. He is terrific as Max and does Zero Mostel proud. His work suggests somebody having a blast, and it’s infectious. He has to work very hard to rise above the film’s meager staging and poor cinematography, but he lends almost every scene a high level of energy and commitment, as opposed to Broderick, who looks like he’d rather be golfing.

In a major change from the original, nonmusical screenplay, Ulla, the Swedish secretary/receptionist, aspires to be an actress. Uma Thurman steps into a role that was to have starred Nicole Kidman, and Kidman isn’t missed. Thurman has an amazing voice and is right at home in a musical. As good as Lane is, Thurman steals every scene she is in. Will Ferrell, as the insane Springtime for Hitler playwright, has some good moments with a small role.

As for the music, composed by Brooks, nothing is all that catchy, although it isn’t bad. The choreographed moments feel as if the Broadway production is simply being restaged. A really nice video of the Broadway production straight to DVD might’ve done the play more justice than trying to blow it up for cinema.

The material is still funny, and the movie hearkens back to a time when Mel Brooks was hilarious. It’s the funniest movie with his name on it since High Anxiety (1977). Too bad it’s also one of the sloppiest.