'The Producers': Kitsch as Kitsch Can

Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman and Matthew Broderick in the movie of the musical of the movie about putting on a musical,
Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman and Matthew Broderick in the movie of the musical of the movie about putting on a musical, "The Producers." (Universal Pictures Via Reuters)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

The question re: "The Producers" would not be "Is it any good?" but "How good is it?" It's got to be good! How could it not be good? Or even great. It's "The Producers," after all.

The original, from 1968, may be the funniest movie ever made. It combined brilliance of many different kinds -- of premise, of performance (Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder), of audacity ("Springtime for Hitler"), of sentimentality (for old Broadway, which New Yorker Mel Brooks clearly loved), of satire, of outrageousness. It entered film history at the cult level and launched Brooks on one of the most inspiring careers in comedy.

Then, years later, along came "The Producers" to Broadway, now musicalized, where in 2001 it set a record by winning 12 Tonys, including best musical, best book (Brooks and Thomas Meehan), best actor (Nathan Lane), best featured actor and actress (Gary Beach and Cady Huffman), and best choreographer and director (Susan Stroman).

So how good is the movie of the musical of the movie? The answer is: It's pretty good.

It's too long to be great and it's too square to be great and it's too loud to be great and it finds homosexual effeminacy too funny to ever be called great, but I can't imagine anyone coming out sadder than they went in, other than the few remaining Nazis who will remember, after all, that the Fhrer was a great dancer and feel that aspect of his personality has been slighted.

An ideal world -- that is, a world run by me in contravention to all laws of physics and biology -- would mandate an ideal "Producers" starring Nathan Lane and Gene Wilder. Alas, back here in the real world, Stroman's film stars her legit boards boys Lane and Matthew Broderick, Mostel having gone on to that great delicatessen in the sky and Wilder pretty much retired. It's not that Broderick is bad, or even disappointing; he's something far worse -- he's not Gene Wilder. He doesn't have Wilder's God-given gift for suggesting a hysteria more intense than a seizure, which it resembles and which twists his rhythms into giddy pulse-crazed gibberish sited on the outer reaches of human irrationality. He goes hysterical the way bullets go ballistic -- at hyper speed and damn the consequences -- then returns in a flash, crisis solved, to sweet-natured, blue-eyed docility. Broderick is just Matthew Broderick: hardworking, decent, possibly charisma-challenged. When he goes hysterical, it's just an actor doing a fair hysteria, not a man touched by the deity speaking in tongues.

But I know some of you are Zero's people. Zero had the most astonishing comb-over in captivity, and that dainty fat-guy fussiness. He seemed to possess a size 54 waist while wearing size 5 shoes, and was astonishingly light on his feet, like a 600-pound Tinker Bell. His eyes narrowed into psychotic greed with extreme passion and his fat fingers seemed hungry to rip more more more flesh off the carcass. It was great, I give you that, and it's just taste that you favor Zero and I favor Nathan. The case for Lane rests on those really cool aigu-et-grave- accent eyebrows going for him, which means that everything he says is deeply insincere. I treasure that in a man. He makes lies sound like lies and the truth sound like even worse lies. He's a belter, too. He seems to be channeling Ethel Merman, and when he power-blasts a number you can practically feel the spit-spray through the screen.

As those of you not from Mars or Alpha Centauri or Middle Earth already know, the premise of "The Producers" is brilliant in its simplicity: A longtime producer, Max Bialystock (Lane), and a naive accountant, Leo Bloom (Broderick), realize that it's possible to make more money on a flop than on a hit, by oversubscribing investments. Thus they work crazily to put on the worst show in Broadway history, coming up with a paean to the Third Reich called "Springtime for Hitler," complete with a singing Hitler and kitsch moments including a chorus line that mutates into a swastika-formation a la an Obergruppenfuhrer-SS Busby Berkeley, or Leni Riefenstahl on animal tranquilizers. Of course they fail completely by succeeding wildly. A hit, a hit, a palpable hit!

Stroman's film version is extremely enjoyable if somewhat square in its presentation. Brooks remains the producer, and therefore, one suspects, in power to preserve his original. In any event, Stroman doesn't try to break new ground on the eternal dilemma of how to blow out a contained stage show for the more penetrative and flexible medium of film: Rather than find a new place to stage it, she settles for the unexceptional -- a reasonably naturalistic world with heavy stylizations that subtly transforms itself to even more stylized stage space for the musical numbers.

She's encouraged Lane and Broderick to stay stage-big; there's no attempt to dial anything down toward the more intimate brand of naturalism that is the house style of commercial cinema. So they blast away (thus the loudness). I think the camera gets too close, sometimes, and is too honest. It reveals that Lane is a born hoofer (different from being a great dancer) and that his natural element is the stage; he moves with gusto and relish and seems always as happy as a you-know-what in you-know-what. Broderick is not a born hoofer; he has learned by practice, practice, practice and somehow the camera senses his tentativeness when he dances, as if he's squinching up his eyes in concentration, making certain that each step is exactly right and that he is hitting his marks perfectly. "Thinking is the enemy of perfection," said Conrad -- who would have made a terrific movie reviewer.

None of the numbers struck me as fabulous, but all are completely entertaining: The famous "Along Came Bialystock" puts a chorus line of old ladies with walkers onstage doing spins and whirls to great comic delight. And "I'm So Unhappy," when Broderick's Leo returns to his accounting firm, may touch the heart of anyone who's spent way too much time in the office. "Springtime for Hitler," the signature number of the show, is more elaborate here than in the original; it's still mind-boggling.

You can feel Brooks making corrections as he goes along. The least successful character in the long-ago original was Dick Shawn's hippy-dippy beatnik-musical Hitler. Now he's been replaced, first by Will Ferrell -- who ends up onstage as an expansion of his role as Franz Liebkind, the insane author of the book -- and then by Gary Beach, playing here as he did onstage the play's gigantically gay director, Roger De Bris. Ulla, the sexy Swedish receptionist hired by Max, has been blown up to give the piece some sexual tension (with Leo) and a genuine star of stature is brought in to play the role: Uma Thurman. Uma, Matthew. Matthew, Uma. Anyhow, she's very good, but she's a person from film come to theater that is only provisionally a film again, and you feel a slight bit of tentativeness in her dancing.

The film is 134 minutes long; the last 14 are a killer, particularly as Brooks and Stroman shunt through various endings and can never find one that really sums up what's come before. Neither could the original. This ending is just as bad, only longer.

The Producers, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references.

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