Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane, fully “Nathan Lane” here) is a Broadway loser, unable to launch a hit show no matter what he tries. When his accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick,) stops by to balance his books, the two hatch a plan that will guarantee them riches: find the worst play ever written, overcharge their investors, then watch it close after one performance. “Springtime for Hitler” is their choice of material, written by neo-Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell, in screaming mode yet again), and sure to offended anyone who comes near it. Getting closer to their dreams of big money, Max and Leo get in way over their heads with Swedish actresses (Uma Thurman), dreadful directors (Gary Beach) and their odd assistants (Roger Bart), and old ladies who want some lovin’ from Max in return for their investments.
“The Producers” is a great example of why most people hate New York City.
Why take a famous Mel Brooks comedy from 1968, puff it up to extraordinary dimensions to fill the weighty expectations of a 2001 Broadway musical version, only to bring it back to the intimacy of movie theatersr Well, money. That’s always the answer. Gobs of it, sitting in the unsuspecting pocketbooks of those who berate themselves daily that they didn’t get a chance to see Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in “The Producers.” Well, this is your chance. Your chance to go completely deaf.
The original “Producers” clicked for many because it was outrageous, short, and toplined by two comic geniuses: Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The new Broadway version is the complete opposite, dragging on for over two hours, allowing the cast to mug for the camera like it was the “Three’s Company” pilot, and thrusting its bloated, half-realized self into the face of the audience at every chance. Mel Brooks’s creation has been bent, stretched, and super-sized into this mammoth, tuneless musical, and there’s no one on Earth who could tame this fire-breathing monster into a suitable film. Nevertheless, Susan Stroman gives it a try. Sort of.
Stroman, a longtime vet of Broadway, doesn’t bring anything even vaguely cinematic to “The Producers,” electing instead to photograph the show exactly as it looked onstage: big and brassy. It’s a colorful, heavily choreographed endeavor, no doubt, but one that brings on a migraine and thoughts of grocery lists immediately.
A critical error was made by Stroman to simply port over the performances Lane and Broderick gave on the stage. In front of 3,000 people, the actors had a giant canvas to paint their comedy with, projecting themselves shamelessly all over the theater with their booming voices and rubber faces, making sure even Mom and Pop Iowa, who paid $1,000 for their back row seats, could get in on the fun. Transfer that thunderous aesthetic to the tight confines of celluloid, and it all turns into one long, endless yelling match, with each actor furiously trying to one up the other in shrillness, intensity, and pure camp. Especially Nathan Lane, who sweats through his costumes and breathlessly sprints around the frame as though he has a sniper rifle trained on him. Saying this material feels like a sledgehammer to your face is being unfair; it felt more like a wrecking ball.
One could also blame Mel Brooks, who has long lost his sense of humor, and now is content to rely on angry stereotype gags to get by. Take away the fact that Nazi-based gags (a staple of the 1968 version) have long lost both their topical punch and comedy cache, and the rest of this film is just a strange menagerie of sexy Swedes (Thurman just isn’t an inspired choice here), horny old ladies, and staggering homosexual caricatures in full flaming, limp-wristed glory. Where’s GLAAD when you need themr Again, not a second of this musical is played gently, with each passing moment louder and more aggressive than the last. At one point, Village People look-alikes show up in a dance number (entitled appropriately, “Keep it Gay”) just to make sure everybody in the audience understands that this is supposed to be amusing. But none of it is, due to the velocity that Stroman is throwing chaotic information and piercing performances at the screen. Any charm to be had in the musical numbers or comedy is drowned like a bag of kittens by the cinematic interpretation, which is clearly too small for a musical this grotesquely broad and aggressive to the senses.
Wheezing to the finale where, gulp, Lane belts out a tune that recounts the entire movie’s events (did we really need thisr), “The Producers” has successfully pounded the audience into a pulp. Fans of the Broadway incarnation might find a thrill in only paying ten bucks to see their beloved stage show whenever they want, but if you’re new to this crazy Mel Brooks creation, this 2005 cinematic torture chamber is the last way anyone should experience it for the first time.Rating: F