Producers, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Producers is a movie based on a play based on a movie about a play. And that's probably the funniest thing about it.

In 1968, Mel Brooks made his big-screen directorial and writing debut with The Producers, a slapstick farce about how two Broadway producers concoct a scheme to get rich by making the worst play in the history of the Great White Way. Predictably, what should be a colossal failure turns out to be a smash hit. Despite a delightfully wicked premise and a couple of delicious lines, The Producers is not on par with Brooks' other early films. It's not consistently clever or funny, and there are long, tedious stretches when one obvious joke after another falls flat. Brooks would hit his stride six years later with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The Producers shows little of the humor evident in those (and other) movies.

Yet, perhaps because of the material, it became Brooks' #1 target to transform into a Broadway musical. The play became a monster hit, pilfering a rack of Tonys, selling out a year in advance, and becoming the darling of critics. A new movie version became inevitable, and Brooks got many of the theatrical principals on board, including director Susan Stroman and stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. The new film is a faithful re-creation of the stage production (which, in turn, is a showy and amped-up adaptation of the 1968 movie). Sadly, that may not be a good thing. The Producers is 128 minutes of diluted, mostly-unfunny comedy interrupted by uninspired, unmemorable music. It's the kind of thing that can work in front of a live audience but often falls apart on the big screen.

It wasn't that long ago that the musical appeared to be making a comeback. Moulin Rouge and Chicago provided energetic examples of how singing and dancing could be as fun in a movie theater as on a stage. But the last 13 months have been ruinous. In December 2004, there was the disastrous The Phantom of the Opera. November 2005 saw Rent undergoing foreclosure. Now comes The Producers. Audiences may be kinder to this movie, but it lacks anything resembling charm or wit. It's a bore. It takes the flaws of the 1968 production and exacerbates them by dragging out a story that already seems too long. And the musical numbers, rather than enhancing things, extend the proceedings without adding any substantial entertainment value.

The producers who embark upon the scam are Max Bailystock (Nathan Lane), a veteran of financing bad plays (his previous effort: "Funny Boy" - a musical version of "Hamlet"), and his accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick). They choose the worst material they can find - "Springtime for Hitler" by neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). After wearing swastikas to appeal to Franz, they hire Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) to direct it. He has a reputation of making everything "gay" and decides to change the ending to make it more upbeat by letting Germany win the war. Max and Leo also hire a Swedish secretary, Ulla (Uma Thurman), who promptly falls in love with Leo.

With The Producers, Susan Stroman is making her feature debut. Highly respected and much lauded for her Broadway and off-Broadway work, she comes to the film with no real experience about what works on the screen, and it shows. Her actors emote like they're trying to reach a live audience. There's no sense of visual style. The movie sits on the screen and stagnates, and the overacting of Lane, Broderick, Ferrell, Beach, and Thurman is more often irritating than it is effective.

The movie borrows about 90% of its comedy from the 1968 edition and, if anything, it's less funny this time around. Most of The Producers wallows in dated jokes that have lost their capacity to make a movie audience laugh out loud. Occasional chuckles are about the best they can do. Then there are the songs, which are easily some of the most forgettable musical numbers from any production in recent years. Leaving the theater, the only one I could remember was "Springtime for Hitler," and that's because it was in the original movie.

Generally speaking, I am a fan of movie musicals, but this one fails on too many levels to make it worthwhile. Despite the overacting and the zealous attempts of stars Lane and Broderick to channel Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (who played their parts in the original), there is no energy. The pacing is awful - scenes drag on for too long. When it was first released, The Producers garnered criticism for being in bad taste. I suppose the charge is true, but bad taste can be fun. That's not the movie's flaw. Instead, the central problem with The Producers is that it's an exercise in tedium.

Producers, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1