Movie Review: The Producers
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
Here's some grim news, especially if Mel Brooks holds a place in your personal ethos of funny, and a mediocre movie musical is like a stake through your heart. "The Producers" on screen, as a musical, does not work. It is not very funny. It doesn't look right. It's depressing.
With original headliners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the musical version of "The Producers" killed, killed, killed on stage in Chicago and New York. Based on Brooks' non-musical 1968 film, it snagged a record number of Tony Awards, none more richly deserved than Lane's. The show never was the same without him.
Lane had the wily stuff of burlesque and vaudeville in his bones. He galvanized the role of Max Bialystock, the desperate self-imagined macher and impresario-ette who convinces accountant Leo Bloom to co-produce the worst play ever written, a loving musical salute to Adolf Hitler, and pocket the investors' money. In a protean role, Lane expanded on what Zero Mostel did for Brooks in '68 - too much, in fact, and in unforgiving close-up - while adding one unerring flourish after another.
Lane, Broderick and several others from the Broadway company have been recruited for the movie, chief among them director/choreographer Susan Stroman. In this, her film debut, Stroman has made a decision to honor the stage roots as much as possible. She keeps her setups simple, to the point where you wonder if she has nailed the camera to the floor.
Unlike "Springtime for Hitler," the show-within-a-show famous for offending "people of all races, colors and religions," "The Producers" never works up enough satiric effrontery to affront anyone. It's a static, almost arthritic movie, with the cast mugging like crazy and waiting for laughs they used to get on stage.
Very little of the stage show's fizziness has found its way into a strangely pallid-looking picture. (Two cinematographers, for this?) Even without his big opener ("The King of Broadway") Lane fares best, although some of his numbers - "Along Came Bialy" in particular, backed by a sea of little-old-lady backers with walkers - have been opened up in the most obvious way possible: by making the numbers bigger. Not better, just bigger.
Broderick's Leo, I don't get. Rather than scaling down his effects for the camera, he goes nuts and strains for his laughs, bugging his eyes out, talking even more like Jerry Lewis's nutty professor than he did a few hundred performances ago.
Gary Beach and Roger Bart have a high old time as Roger De Bris and his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia. Subtle they're not, but like Lane, they're at least trying to figure out a way to pull off Brooks' outlandish shtick and variably inventive show tunes for a new medium. As for the film's celebrated newcomers, Will Ferrell makes a mild impression as unrepentant Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, squandering his big number (a Durante/Jolson turn, "Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?") by delivering it in a coy "mama's boy" fashion his own dialogue warns against.
The "Producers" poster and advertising imagery is all about Uma Thurman and Uma Thurman's thighs. She, and they, play Ulla, the boys' secretary - talk about your "I'll Take Sweden"-era gags - and every ounce of her hard work is on the screen, in a not-good way. Laying on the mock-Svedish dialect, Thurman lends a grim determination to her musical numbers, as if readying herself for another "Kill Bill" movie.
One can see why Stroman decided to park the camera and let the performers do their thing. There are worse strategies for a fledgling film director. Yet any film newcomer faced with a musical can always take a tip or two from Vincente Minnelli. In "Cabin in the Sky," Minnelli's screen debut, there's not a lot of fancy cutting or wildly showy camerawork. Minnelli does, however, make the camera a moving, interacting partner of the performers. And he was just beginning.
Point being: You have to decide to shoot your musical in some sort of style, with some sense of how to shape a number. Stroman, Brooks and the gang haven't rethought "The Producers" for the movies, at least not enough. It's as if they plunked the property down on a soundstage and told the cast, somewhat wearily: OK, fellas, for the last time - take it on home.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman; music and lyrics by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the stage musical; cinematography by John Bailey and Charles Minsky; production design by Mark Friedberg; edited by Steven Weisberg; produced by Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger. A Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 16. Running time: 2:14. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual humor and references).
Max Bialystock - Nathan Lane
Leo Bloom - Matthew Broderick
Ulla - Uma Thurman
Franz Liebkind - Will Ferrell
Roger De Bris - Gary Beach
Carmen Ghia - Roger Bart