Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Producers (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 24, 2006

Directed by Susan Stroman/screenplay by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks/starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach, Roger Bart/Universal Home Entertainment

A down-on-his luck Broadway producer teams up with an accountant to scam investors by producing the biggest flop ever.

I’ve decided that rather than doing remakes of every movie ever made (as Hollywood seems intent on), they should just re-create everything as a musical comedy. Seriously, it’s a lot more fun to watch. After the triumph of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical and now this, I’m on board for pretty much anything they want to do in this vein. How about Texas Chainsaw Massacre; The Musical? Smells like a laugh riot to me.

The Producers is, of course, based on the gigantic hit Broadway play, which was itself based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy. The original film was a notorious flop when first released, but gained a cult following in the years since. I’m not sure what happened with this version when it played in theaters; it was supposed to be the big blockbuster last Christmas, and somehow that didn’t happen (the damn thing never even played near me, so I’m not sure if it was a fumble on the part of Universal, or there weren’t enough screens available or what). Whatever happened there, the piece has now come full circle, from huge bomb to cult favorite to massive success back to a bomb again. It’s an irony that Brooks’ lead character Max Bialystock would probably appreciate.

I know there are a lot of people who love Brooks’ original film and consider it one of the great comedies of all time. I’m not one of them, however. The humor in it has always escaped me somehow – I think it’s partially because I’m not a big Broadway person, so some of it probably went over my head. But I was able to approach the new version with an open mind, and I found that I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I guess there’s no piece of material that can’t be improved with a few show-stopping musical numbers.

It’s not so much that Brooks and company have reinvented the wheel as they’ve simply fine-tuned it, like a new model of a car that runs smoother than the prototype. The backdrop has been transferred to the glamorous ‘50’s, but the story is basically the same: veteran Broadway producer Bialystock (Lane), coming off the latest in a string of stinkers (a musical version of Hamlet entitled Funny Boy), hires a new accountant, neurotic Leo Bloom (Broderick). While doing the books, Leo discovers that Max actually made money on the flop, and posits a theory that one could conceivably get rich by raising more funds than necessary for a play that closes on opening night.

So Max and Leo make it their mission to find the worst play ever written, and boy do they ever find it in “Springtime for Hitler”, a pro-Nazi musical written by a lunatic named Franz Liebkind (Ferrell). Then they set out to hire the worst possible director for the material, a flaming homosexual (Beach) whose sensibility is to keep everything light and frothy no matter what the subject matter. Then it’s Max’s job to convince his “investors”, a bunch of rich old ladies he has sex with to get them to bankroll his ill-fated productions. Meanwhile, Leo falls in love with bombshell actress/secretary Ulla (Thurman), who impresses the duo with an audition that would make Hugh Hefner do cartwheels.

Brooks’ sense of humor has always been “anything for a laugh” borscht-belt vaudeville (and god love him for it), and The Producers is no exception. To call it broad doesn’t even begin to do it justice – it’s more like mega-broad. But you can’t argue with laughs, and the movie gets more than its share. You never get the sense that Brooks is laughing at his characters or simply taking cheap shots at them though. Each character has his or her own bizarre quirks that are mined for politically incorrect humor, but it’s never mean-spirited or vulgar. Brooks seems to know exactly where the line is, and he walks it admirably. Even the legendarily shocking “Springtime for Hitler” number seems rather quaint now – it’s not that Nazis themselves are funny, but the idea of making them the center of an adoring musical definitely is. Brooks is smart enough to know the difference.

The musical numbers are fun and inventive, and performed with genuine comic skill and precision (of course, not having seen the play, I have nothing to compare it to). The songs let us in on the inner lives of the characters and tell us what they’re all about, from Leo’s desperate but hopeful “I Wanna Be a Producer” to Ulla’s gangbusters, gorgeous-and-thrilled-about-it anthem “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”. Even when they have nothing to do with the plot (other than to introduce us to a character), they never seem extraneous or bring the movie to a halt. The songs add a sense of heightened reality to the material that serves it well, an exaggerated cartoonish quality (in a good way) that recalls the zany slapstick and the verbal dexterity of an old Marx Brothers comedy.

It helps that the entire cast seems game. Lane and Broderick could probably perform these parts in their sleep by now, but to these eyes they seemed fresh and yet completely in tune with each other’s comic rhythms. Lane is someone who Hollywood has never really known what to do with, and normally a little of his shtick can go a long way. But he seems completely at home in the skin of the scheming, desperate Bialystock, a shlubby guy who’s willing to do anything (and anyone) for another shot at success. Broderick has been an undervalued comic performer for years now – he can be transcendent given the right material (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or horrible given the wrong material (The Stepford Wives – ugh, don’t remind me). He hits all the right notes here as the nervous Leo, a dreamer stuck in an anonymous life of ordinary unhappiness, and he even nails the heretofore unwatchable (at least by me) “blue blankie” speech. Thurman is spectacular in full va-va-voom mode, making Ulla both unbelievably sexy and enormously endearing without ever playing the too-easy “dumb blonde” card. And Ferrell is inspired as the Hitler-obsessed nutjob Franz, reigning in his over-the-top tendencies just enough. It’s to these actors’ credit that I never once compared them to their predecessors while watching the new version. They simply owned the characters.

I only wish that Brooks had directed the film himself, or at least hired someone with more film experience. Broadway director Stroman makes her film debut here, and unfortunately it shows a little bit, as she seems to have never met a close-up shot she actually liked. On her commentary, she mentions that “plays are all done in wide shots”, and I couldn’t help but think, “yeah, and so is 85% of this movie!” Good god, just because a movie is based on a play doesn’t mean it has to be shot like one! As funny as it is, as enjoyable and well-staged as it is…the movie almost always feels like a filmed play. That’s not what a movie should be like. If Stroman wanted to simply film the play, she should have whipped out a camera during one of the performances – visually you’d have pretty much the same movie.

But that’s not damaging enough to keep The Producers from being a hell of a lot of fun. If anything, it proves once again that Brooks is a comedy god, someone that today’s feature comedy writers and directors have a lot to learn from. Where much of the current film comedy scene seems only interested in mining scatological humor for more and more witless returns (I’m looking at you, Wayans Brothers), Brooks proves once again that you can have big, raunchy laughs without sacrificing character, style and humanity. That’s what I love about his best work (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and the hugely underrated History of the World Part I) – yes, they’re full of gags, but they’re not just about the gags. His best movies had a genuine heart, as well as intelligence underneath the “anything for a laugh” mentality. He believed in laughing with people, not at them. It’s not enough to be willing to do anything for a laugh – you have to be smart enough to know what’s funny. And he knew funny like nobody’s business.

Come back to us, Mel. We need you now more than ever.

The DVD has the usual assortment of deleted scenes (including a musical number of Max’s that I wish they’d left in) and outtakes. There’s a behind-the-scenes segment called “Analysis of a Scene” that details the making of the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number, which is easily the most visually ambitious of all the songs. And there’s Stroman’s commentary, which sounds strangely rehearsed, as if she’s reading her comments off of a written page rather than simply reacting naturally to what’s on screen. It sounds more like a monologue than a DVD commentary, and someone should’ve told her to loosen up. But what do Broadway people know about DVD commentaries anyway?

***1/2 5/24/06

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