The Netflix Report

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Monday, May 22, 2006

The Producers (2005)

This review covers the December 2005 movie, released on DVD in 2006. Your loyal reviewer is a die-hard "Producers" fan. I own the original 1968 film and consider it one of the great film comedies. I probably know every line, facial expression, and camera shot in the movie. I also saw the musical version on Broadway in the first round with Lane and Broderick. So you can bet I had plenty of baggage to carry into my viewing of this filmed adaptation of the stage show.

Not to keep you in suspense, I was disappointed. The movie fails to capture both the sharp cynicism of the original and the buoyancy of the stage musical.

If you are still unfamiliar with the plot after all the various versions and popular hype, here it is in a nutshell: A has-been Broadway producer who went from making hits to making flops meets a mousy, nebbishy accountant. They decide they can cook the books and make money by overselling shares in a new show, spending little on it and having it flop, and pocketing the difference. They go about the tricky task of finding the worst play, the worst director, and the worst actors to ensure the play's instant demise. The play they choose is entitled "Springtime For Hitler (A gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden)." You can guess the rest.

The original film was written and directed by Mel Brooks. It starred Zero Mostel as the crooked producer and Gene Wilder as the accountant. Wilder was coming off a bit part in "Bonnie and Clyde" and this was his first co-starring role. Mostel was a theater legend at the time, coming off smash hits with "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" and "Fiddler On The Roof." Brooks was writing and directing his first feature film, but had no shortage of self confidence and chutzpah. He and Zero had famous fights during the making of the film and each ended up saying the other was a talentless hack who had ruined their vision of the comedy. I loved the contributions of all three.

Given the availability of the original movie as a very specific reference point on the characters, the setup, and the gag lines, you can't help but make comparisons when watching the new movie. Nathan Lane as the producer is a gifted comic actor, but he doesn't have the bulk and wild-eyed menace that Mostel had. When Gene Wilder was hysterically screaming that Mostel was going to jump on him and kill him, you could make a case for his panic attack. Zero badgered and bullied him with real anger in the opening setup meeting scene. This was a man seemingly capable of anything. Lane on the other hand seems like a jokester, a conniver, but not somebody you would ever be afraid of. When Broderick goes into the panic attack, you sit there with a confused look on your face. What's he so worried about? Why does he have to ask Lane to smile in order to calm down?

Broderick was even more of a problem when compared to Wilder's portrayal of the accountant. Wilder played the character as a man-child, rubbing his face with his baby blanket and unsure of himself in a world of adults. He was a case of unfinished development, a small boy in an adult's body. When he whimpered, you wanted to pat his head and tell him everything would be all right. He evoked sympathy. Broderick on the other hand plays the character as simply a nerd. He affects a nasally voice and makes strange facial expressions. Despite his always youthful face, there is no trace of youthful mannerisms or emotions in Broderick's repertoire. He has spent his entire acting career trying to overcome the impression of himself as a child and he can't seem to recover the innocence of youth. When he acts up in the role, you want to slap him and say "Snap out of it! What's the matter with you?"

In the theater, the two had great chemistry together and with the audience. It was a winking collaboration between themselves and us in the seats that we were all going to overlook the little things that didn't quite gel because it was all so much darned fun. They made asides and knowing glances at the audience and threw in topical ad libs to make sure we were all in on the joke.

On screen, they can't do it. Lane keeps looking like he desperately wants to break the fourth wall, but can't find the audience to talk to. Broderick simply looks uncomfortable and can't figure out where he should focus his gaze (The outtakes on the DVD show that the two cracked each other up constantly and often had trouble completing a scene - collapsing in laughter. The problem is that they were internalizing all of this interactivity between themselves instead of letting it flow through the camera to the viewer - or even to the other actors around them.)

Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the stage musical and was given directing duties for the film. This was her first directing job behind the lens and it shows. She doesn't have the sense for pacing and continuity on film, and shots look haphardly set up from multiple angles. Many of the interior scenes are shot as if she was doing a documentary of the stage show, with jumpy edits that bounce you between points of view. Then she'll suddenly remember that it's a film and go outside to a street scene to "open up the stage play." Then we're right back to obvious set work on a soundstage.

It's not a complete disaster. The gag lines are still there and still funny (mostly). The supporting cast features a mix of actors from the Broadway musical and Hollywood film stars thrown in for name value. I waited with a sense of dread for Will Ferrell's interpretation of Franz, the Nazi author of Springtime For Hitler, but he turned in a surprisingly likable performance. It turns out that the part is so over the top that even Ferrell can't overplay it. And Uma Thurman as the Swedish secretary/receptionist the boys hire does a commendable job (even though she can't belt a signature vocal number the way a real musical theater professional could).

Gary Beach and Roger Bart reprise their stage roles as the gay director of the show within the show and his "common law assistant." They steal most of their scenes with the most politically incorrect mincing, lisping, over-the-top gay stereotypes since, well, ever. The gay community should be up in arms over the way the parts are written except for the fact that it's so obvious they aren't based in any reality other than parody.

The songs from the stage show were all filmed, but some didn't make the cut into the final print. The deleted ones (and snippets cut out seemingly at random for time purposes) are all available in Bonus Features on the DVD.

The movie contains far too many in-jokes referring to early Mel Brooks comedies (especially Blazing Saddles, which must have five direct line references). It also features Brooks's requisite dub-in of a single line in the musical number "Springtime For Hitler" (fans know that he dubbed the line in the original movie and the stage musical). It also contains Brooks's less known signature sound effect as a screeching cat. Listen for it. You'll also hear it in several of his other films and comedy albums. After a while I get a little tired of Mel Brooks effectively telling us (subtly) how wonderful Mel Brooks stuff is.

If you want to get an idea of what the show was like on Broadway, this is a pretty faithful re-creation. Unfortunately you won't understand why it felt like such a breath of fresh air and made audiences so giddily happy (and won an unprecedented 12 of the unprecedented 15 Tony awards it was nominated for... It would have won the other three, but they were actors competing against other actors in the same show!). The freshness and connection is missing in the film.

If you want to see it for the comedic story, go back and watch the 1968 version instead. Even with a terribly dated and now unfunny hippie sub-plot (that they wisely threw away in the remake), it's still better than the current version in all the talking scenes. Just compare the first meeting scene of the co-stars in each film. Night and day, baby.

Parents note: There are swear words and leering references to boobs, butts, and sexual attraction. No nudity or drugs.

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