WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Legendary Broadway producer Max Bialystock has become a laughing stock due to a string of flops, but when nervous accountant Leo Bloom crosses his path he hits upon a road to wealth, if not glory. By staging a definite flop the pair can make more money than backing a hit, so they set out to put on the worst Broadway musical ever. Enough wrongs can always make a right, however, and when love threatens to get in the way Bialystock and Bloom’s partnership seems doomed.
Given that the original 1968 film of The Producers was all about the theatre and came complete with its own show-stopping musical number, perhaps the only surprise about the wild success of the 2001 Broadway show was that it took so long for Mel Brooks to think of it. More surprising was the decision to make a film of the show of the film, but as Messrs Bialystock and Bloom would no doubt appreciate, good judgement rarely interferes where there’s money to be made.
Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is the faded producer of Broadway shows, now in such reduced circumstances that he gives little old ladies cheap thrills in exchange for money to (as they think) fund new productions. Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) is sent to look at Bialystock’s books and in spotting an anomaly in the producer’s figures hits upon the notion that a play for which $2 million was raised, but only ran for one night, could earn more than a hit show – the caveat being that if the show was successful, the producers couldn’t possibly pay out on the profits and they’d go to jail. Bialystock embraces the scheme but Bloom flees, only to be drawn back by a secret yen to be a producer himself and the misery of his accounting job. With the pair committed to the plan, they find the right script – a show called Springtime for Hitler by deranged German Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell) and the right director in outrageously camp Roger De Bris (Gary Beach, permanently aided by waspish assistant Roger Bart). With the money from ‘little old lady-land’ safely in the safe and a shapely new secretary hired in the form of aspiring actress Ulla (Uma Thurman), the show seems entirely doomed, especially when Roger has to take over the role of Hitler from Liebkind at the last minute; but somehow, the show becomes a camp smash and the producers are ruined. Or at least, Bialystock is: Bloom has fallen in love with Ulla and they nip off to Rio with the money. Surely he can’t let the man who made his dreams come true rot in Sing-Sing?
Apart from the added love story and the realignment of a few characters (to replace ‘LSD’, the hippy Hitler of the original), it’s only really Mel Brooks’ new songs that distinguish Stroman’s version of The Producers from the old one; and there you have both of the film’s major problems in one fell swoop. Firstly, while the songs – complete with dancing girls – are nice enough and give the musical a length and campy breadth that are essential in the theatre, in and of themselves they are not particularly memorable and numbers like I Want to be a Producer and Keep it Gay merely slow down the action, to such an extent that if you ran the two films side by side, the credits would have rolled on the 1968 film before Springtime For Hitler had even started on the 2005 one. Secondly, there are some nice new jokes in the film but the best ones are handed down directly from 1968, and there is no way that Lane and Broderick can compete with the frayed, tense magnificence of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Lane is too young, Broderick too old; and both are far too clean, a problem they share with glistening sets that emphasise that Stroman is essentially content to stage the Broadway show and film it at the same time. The lack of effort to cater for a film audience rather than a theatre one results in some odd moments, since the performances are all larger-than-life stage turns geared for the non-existent responses of a live crowd. The energy and humour of the show is terrific (I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway in 2005, with Richard Kind – who has a cameo here as the jury foreman – as Bialystock) but the multitudinous slapstick scenes and strange looks off camera just don’t work on celluloid.
But back to the casting for a moment. Nathan Lane, a seasoned pro if ever there was one, does his best work when he doesn’t have to imitate Mostel (especially the Betrayed sequence); but Broderick never finds his character, substituting an annoying tone of voice for genuine emotion and never making us believe he’s a nebbish in need of a comfort blanket. Ferrell, Beach and Bart are all fine, whilst it’s hard to know about Thurman: she’s certainly striking and wonderfully leggy – she hoofs it up a treat – but her comic talents are so-so and of all the things you would sing about, ‘that face’ is probably not the first*. Still, it would be tough for anyone to mess up Springtime for Hitler and the musical is great in this version too, with a strong vocal by John Barrowman. It’s funny and still tasteless, with Roger (‘Heil myself!’) a decent substitute for LSD, and although he evokes Corky St Clair from Waiting for Guffman this isn’t a negative comparison. It’s a shame that the film had to lose Bialystock and Bloom celebrating prematurely at the bar, but the film is quite long enough as it is.
And that, ultimately, is the real problem. The Producers works like a charm on the stage, but on film you begin to wonder whether every point has to be underscored with a song, especially when none of them can hold a candle to the ones already in the harsher and zippier classic of ’68. I don’t dislike The (New) Producers at all, but watching it is like hearing a sanitised pop version of a classic rock song and I wonder why – other than the financial imperative – it was thought necessary. If you adore the show and want a permanent memory of it, then fair enough, but otherwise an irrational fear of older movies can be the only reason to get this over the original.
NOTES: I know. Me-ow!