If the phrase “the movie musical of the award winning musical of the Oscar winning film that was The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) comes to cinemas” sounds contrived to you, it would be best to avoid this latest iteration of the Mel Brooks story. Following the success of bringing the original to Broadway, winning 12 Tony Awards and being shipped to theatres overseas it was only a matter of time before someone decided to cash in at the box office again. However, this is no cheap imitation show where characters are changed and the cheapest equivalent actor for each part is found. Mel Brooks has overseen the whole project, and brought in the woman behind the revitalised stage version, Susan Stroman, to direct. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their roles as theatre producer Max Bialystock and accountant Leo Bloom respectively, while reliable support comes from Will Ferrell as neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, and Uma Thurman as Swedish stunner Ulla. So what went wrong?
…on paper The Producers looked like the very production Bialystock and Bloom wanted to avoid — a success
The story is simple enough. When Bloom comes to inspect Bialystock’s books after another flop show he points out that a producer could make more money from a show that closes on its first night than one that is a runaway success. According to his theory, investors do not expect their money back if the public and critics savage a show. They agree to find a guaranteed flop, convince investors to give them $2million, tamper with their books and keep all the money when the show closes on its first night. The result is controversial production “Springtime for Hitler”, described as a gay Nazi romp, directed by the overly camp Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and funded by zimmerframe-wielding old ladies. With Brooks, Stroman, a strong cast and a story used twice before, on paper The Producers looked like the very production Bialystock and Bloom wanted to avoid — a success.
…bringing a production to the stage does not provide the perfect training for directing for the screen
Most of the blame goes to Susan Stroman making her directorial debut in film and proving that bringing a production to the stage does not provide the perfect training for directing for the screen. During the dialogue scenes she is content to leave the camera square in front of the actors, positioning the audience as though they are watching it performed on a stage. This removes any depth to the action on screen and makes it feel more like a sitcom such as Friends or Frasier. This would work if Lane and Broderick could control their acting, but both seem convinced they need to shout every line to the back row and ham it up like a pantomime. While this may be great theatre, on screen it just looks desperate without a live audience to play off. Ferrell and Thurman at least bring some composure to their roles and are funny in spite of, rather than because of, the Lane/Broderick double act.
The musical numbers leave a lot to be desired especially in wake of recent hits Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) and Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), or even the Busby Berkley pictures from the 1930s. Whereas those featured elaborate dance routines and a roving camera to capture the spirit of the performance, Stroman again leaves the camera flat and central. Any hope of engaging with the songs is lost: the interludes become insipid cries for help from a film drowning in its own over-enthusiasm and desperate pleas for approval.
…people were leaving well before the end at my screening
The Producers could have been an enjoyable comedy romp if Stroman had directed with a little imagination and told her leads to lay off whatever high-energy drink they had been sipping between takes. The presentation of “Springtime for Hitler” is one of the highlights of the film, but the story drags on so long afterwards with numerous unnecessary songs that people were leaving well before the end at my screening. It is a shame that Brooks has tarnished the great reputation that The Producers has built up over the years, and is another example of the dangers of Hollywood’s constant scavenging of its back catalogue assuming that remakes will take the industry forward. Not on the strength of this, or other recent disappointments too numerous to mention.