DVD Review: The Producers
By Frankie Dees May 18, 2006, 14:24 GMT
Mel Brooks is bringing The Producers, one of the most honored musicals in the history of the American theater, to the motion picture screen as a sparkling, feature-length musical comedy. The record-breaking Tony Award-winning hit (based on Mel Brooks\' seminal 1968 motion picture comedy) received 15 nominations and won a record-breaking 12 awards, including Best Musical, Best Director and Choreographer, and Best Actor. Two-time Tony Award winners Nathan Lane and ...more
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their roles in the faithful adaptation of the Broadway musical smash ‘The Producers’ just in time to coincide with the recent resurgence of the Hollywood musical.
This film has led a journey as strange as Bialystock & Bloom. ‘The Producers’ first came about as a much-adored (only later, the film wasn’t commercially well received at the time) 1968 film written and directed by Mel Brooks - which was not a musical but a comedy about musicals. The film went on to win the Oscar for best original screenplay.
Mel Brooks (in a stroke of genius) got the idea to make ‘The Producers’ a full-fledged musical. In 2001, it made its Broadway smash debut that was almost as popular as ‘Springtime for Hitler’. The story now returns to the big-screen this time as an adaptation of the play.
As all trends go in Hollywood, if something becomes a success, it’s time to milk it for all it’s worth. With ‘The Producers’ being both a remake and a musical, how did it take this long? “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” started a mini-revival of the musical several years ago, and since then we have seen 2004’s “Phantom of the Opera” and last year’s “Rent” come and go to mostly consumer indifference. The lackluster box-office performance of this film also makes one worry if the upcoming ‘Sweeny Todd’, ‘Dreamgirls’ and ‘Damn Yankees’ films might be in trouble - because if Mel Brooks at his best can’t pack ‘em in, who can?
“My movies rise below vulgarity” - An oft-cited quote by Mel Brooks and a perfect summation of his work, at least of his best work. The epitome of his work can be found in the trilogy of The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. They are films that push boundaries, good taste and, yes, vulgarity to the breaking point. Yet at the end of the day, they come away offering more than just laughs but social and racial commentary as well. Laughs and a message? I won’t have it!
I would be surprised if you were unfamiliar with the plot but here it goes anyway. Nathan Lane plays Max Bialystock - a Broadway producer who finances his Ed Wood-ish plays by taking advantage of wealthy, old nymphomaniac women. He plays dirty games in exchange for a check. When his latest octogenarian-financed play fails to light the world on fire, a nervous accountant is thrown his way to make sure the finances add up. They don’t. Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick) points out that $2,000 dollars are missing and, as he ponders on the finances, he nonchalantly mentions that it’s possible to make more money from a flop than from a success.
Cue the eyebrow. Max sweeps over to Leo to discover how this could be. Leo notes that a flop will not have to pay out on its investments so if one were to raise a couple a million for the play, spend a fraction of that and then after the play flops, take off with remaining financing. All they need is the perfect flop, an idea so outrageous, so ridiculous, so offensive as to never even last the opening night. What they need is ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell) plays the Nazi sympathizer/playwright who provided them with such an idea, an idea that makes the Fuhrer as pleasant as Jesus. Liebkind is a lederhosen, helmet wearing nutjob who takes special care of a pigeon who has perfected the Nazi salute. They have the perfect stage play, now they need the perfect director. So they arrive at the door of Roger DeBris (Gary Beach) - a director infamous for ineptitude and overt gayness. A pro-Hitler play in the hands of the gayest man this side of Christmas? How can they go wrong?
And of course, wrongness permeates throughout the film in a number of guises. A moderately enjoyable effort due mostly to the dialogue kept intact from the original film. The ‘Springtime for Hitler’ number that was in the original film is as outrageous and funny as ever but some of the other numbers are more uneven. The highlights being the Village People-derived number “Keep it Gay” with Roger DeBris and his sidekick Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) – quite possibly the gayest man ever to be seen on on-screen, and his costume-wearing cohorts and Will Ferrell’s numbers “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and “Haben Sie geh-dis Detusche band,” in which the names of the songs alone elicit laughs. Almost all of the other songs are instantly forgettable - if not completely boring.
Almost all of the original cast members of the play reprise their roles in the play with the exceptions of Uma Thurman as va-voomish, Swedish secretary Ulla and Will Ferrell as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Ironically, it’s these two performances that come off as the most successful. I have been reviewing the Tennessee Williams’ films of late and have noted in several of my reviews how the repetition and perfection of an actors’ performance acted out hundreds of times before in the play has benefited with a superior film performance. This film might prove the opposite in one occasion.
Nathan Lane is dependable as Bialystock but Matthew Broderick just seems to be tired and done with the role. The histrionics involved with the role need careful attention and when done wrong can come off as terribly faux. It doesn’t help that no one does hysterics better than Gene Wilder (who occupied the role in 1968) and comparisons are inevitable.
Nathan Lane holds his own against Zero Mostel, but Matthew Broderick just doesn’t come close. I never saw the Broadway play but I’m assuming the role was played with a little more subtlety and that the film inspired overcompensation for the lack of a live audience. Certainly this film plays out like it needs a laugh track; an engulfment of live laughs is what seems to be missing.
The film is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. Special Features include almost 20 minutes of deleted scenes that are mildly intriguing but wisely cut from the film. At 135 minutes, the film is 45 minutes longer than the original film due to the length of the songs. Honestly, I think a little more excising would have been helpful. We also have 15 minutes of Outtakes that are definitely worth a look and add legitimate laughs to the overall package. Next we have “Analysis of a Scene” which focuses on the musical number “I Wanna Be a Producer”.
A sixteen-minute look into the scene, it’s fairly in-depth but I wish they chose a more happening musical number to focus on. Finally we have the feature-length commentary by director Susan Stroman (who directed the play) who provides a stolid, extremely well-prepared commentary who sounds if she is reading from cue cards for the most part. It is informative but not exactly exciting.
To sum up, I think the biggest problem with this film is that it’s not the original. Matthew Broderick is not Gene Wilder. Not the film or Matthew Broderick’s fault, necessarily, but there you go. If you haven’t seen the original film, you will probably come away relatively satisfied (if you enjoy musicals that is) and there is enough laughs and fun here to justify a viewing regardless. But Susan Stroman’s stagy direction and the impassioned performance of one of the two main leads keep it from approaching the greatness of say… ‘Springtime for Hitler.’