If Oliver Stone were to direct a movie musical (we’ll forget that he wrote the script for Evita), this is probably what it would turn out like. There are many words to describe the film version of The Producers, but subtle is not one of them. The movie is like Blake Edwards’ later work; it seems so desperate for laughs that it is willing to choke them from the audience. The movie is based on the Broadway smash, itself adapted by Mel Brooks from his 1968 film. The setup is simple: Broadway hack Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) enlists a nebbish accountant named Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) to help him stage a musical that?s guaranteed to flop so that the two of them can abscond with the money invested in it.
With a plot that slim and flimsy, the action needs to be brisk and light to keep the audience from pondering the inconsistencies. Unfortunately, director/choreographer Susan Stroman (who helmed the stage version as well) tells a lighthearted farce with a very heavy hand. Clocking well above the two-hour mark, the film wears out its welcome many times over. In addition, for a choreographer, Stroman?s staging is remarkably flat, as if the blocking from the stage version had simply been transferred to film. She also fails to put the camera to much use and the film looks and feels static and two-dimensional.
Regardless of your particular fondness for this kind of material, the actors should have fared better than they do here, particularly since many are vets of the Broadway version. Yet, that may very well be the biggest problem. The performances of the Broadway actors are arch and overdone, with supposed comic bits milked for extra laughs that aren’t there to begin with. Perhaps the worst offender is Broderick, whose performance is alternately mannered and boring. Affecting a nasal voice and a little-boy physicality (we get it, you’re a nerd), Broderick is never the engaging na?f he should be. In contrast to Broderick‘s blandness, Lane‘s hammy mugging is exhausting and embarrassing. Occasionally, he is able to provide genuine laughs, but he’s trying so hard the whole time that they barely seem worth the effort. Gary Beach and Roger Bart reprise their roles as the director and his “common-law assistant.” What could have been a lighthearted comic duo instead turn into garish stereotypes. In all, it’s as if Stroman and her Broadway cronies are constantly nudging the audience and saying, “Aren’t we cute?” The only bright spots are, ironically, the newcomers. Perhaps because the material isn’t as familiar to them, Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman come off as fresh and engaging, infusing the film with the energy you wish the rest of the company had. As the neo-nazi playwright, Ferrell does what none of the Broadway players does – he takes his part seriously. Ferrell manages to create some genuine comedy because his performance is free of the smug self-satisfied quality that plagues much of the cast (he also exhibits strong musical potential as his voice is quite nice). Perhaps the best player is Uma, who plays Ulla (I can hear David Letterman chuckling to himself), a not-as-dumb-as-she-looks Swedish ing’nue who captures Bloom’s heart and a role in their flop show, Springtime for Hitler. Thurman is a breath of fresh air, vital and endearing. Though obviously a novice singer and dancer, she comes off quite well, bringing the few smiles to my face during this long, lumpy film.
As my mind wandered (which it did often) during the movie, it occurred to me that perhaps the other culprit besides Stroman?s leaden direction was the material itself. Perhaps as a culture, we?re too cynical and ironic for the kind of big, blowsy entertainment that The Producers aspires to be. Many critics think the original 1968 film to be comic genius, so it’s a shame that its reincarnation is so lackluster. However, the un-ironic part of me secretly hopes (and believes) that in the right hands, an old-fashioned song-and-shtick show like Mel Brooks’ The Producers is still possible. Better luck next time?
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