Springtime for Mel

Flawed, but better than the original

In 1968 it was a movie. In 2001 it became a musical. Now it's a movie again? Yep, and there's actually pretty good reason to return The Producers to the screen. The original film, though intermittently inspired, was slow and often boring, and its homophobic, misogynistic humor no longer plays well, if it ever did. (In fairness, writer-director Mel Brooks took potshots at everyone, but the sting is there.) The musical, on the other hand, breathes with life and joy; it takes the same outsized characters and, rather than allowing their manic energy to stall, catapults them into large-scale Broadway production numbers.

With one exception. One hates to pick on him, because he tries so hard, but Matthew Broderick is no Gene Wilder. There's something of the good-natured, sweetie-pie imp that Broderick can never shed, no matter how many years he puts between himself and Ferris Bueller. Wilder's freakish high-wire act, always tottering on the verge of a free-fall into total madness, sent repressed accountant Leo Bloom into vibrations of hilarious unease. It must have been hard for Broderick to decide how to play Bloom -- whether to imitate Wilder or to create something new from the same role. He went for mimicry, and he can't do it. Nobody can.

The premise, vintage Mel Brooks, remains a good one. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a failing Broadway producer whose every show goes down in flames. When Broderick's Bloom shows up to do the books, he discovers an interesting state of affairs: "Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit." For Bloom, it's an academic curiosity. For Bialystock, it's an epiphany, and he convinces Bloom to co-produce the biggest disaster in Broadway history. The scheme: Raise a million dollars, put up the play at a fraction of the cost, and make sure it closes after opening night. If the show doesn't make any money, Bialystock and Bloom won't have to pay their many backers.

You know what happens next. The show they produce, Springtime for Hitler, is a resounding success. Directed by an aging queen named Roger DeBris (Gary Beach), who does showgirls and chorus lines as a matter of course, Springtime perverts the most infamously horrific and genocidal regime of the 20th century into a comedic extravaganza, infusing it with the same kinds of jokes, melodies, and song-and-dance numbers that Producers the musical added to the film. It's funny -- especially with a spastic Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind, the demented Nazi playwright; he lends a goofy lightness to a part that was too dark to enjoy in the original film. (Ferrell is aided by a passel of interactive animatronic pigeons, one of whom is named Adolf -- and credited.)

Nathan Lane is also a marvel in the role originated by Zero Mostel. With brows canted at drastic slopes and eyes bulging with passion and greed, he commits to Bialystock's every impulse, wringing humor from moments that were soggy with effort in the 1968 movie. His inherent chumminess brings a warmth that the role badly needs, since we have to care that Bialystock succeeds. And Uma Thurman slinks into her role as Ulla, the objectified Swedish secretary, though it's still a little hard to laugh. Brooks was wise, this time around, to empower her with sexual desire and artistic ambition, but buxom-broad jokes? For an entire scene?

Some additional kudos: Leo Bloom now has a backstory, and these scenes are among the finest in the film. In particular, the drudgery of his job as an accountant couldn't have been better wrought, with a matrix of identical men sitting at identical desks, punching their adding machines in time to the rhythm of "unhappy, unhappy." What this gives us is not merely a reason to understand why Bloom is willing to take such a large risk; it also gives us an eminently pleasing look at a world we long to leave. (All that and a fabulous production number!) Director-choreographer Susan Stroman works wonders in the ensemble scenes, including one that employs a procession of old ladies and their walkers to stunning advantage.

Where the film fails is in its final half-hour, which inserts pointless plot elements and indulges in needless songs. Presumably, the musical needed a longer running time to justify its multi-hundred-dollar tickets, but the movie could have dispensed with same. The result is far from the rousing finale we crave, but rather a drag. In the end, The Producers is an enjoyable romp, and at times -- as when Hitler sings "Heil Myself" -- it's hilarious. But it's not transcendent.

 
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