All heil for the kings of Broadway

'Producers' hits few wrong notes on the big screen

Movie Review


The Producers is like a bustling Al Hirschfeld cartoon of the Great White Way brought to uproarious and untidy life. Mel Brooks' musical-comedy expansion of his 1968 cult farce about producers who think they can make more money with a flop than with a hit comes to the screen as a loving burlesque caricature of Broadway.

The original picture, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, was a debut film that put its writer-director on the map. This movie can't compete with that one's raw energy. But it captures much of the verve and spice that, along with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, made Brooks' musical version a Broadway-stage smash 33 years later.

Once again, Brooks sends New York's polyglot drive and inner frictions straight up to the slapstick, wisecracking surface. His canny mix of low and high comedy clears the air of any cant about race, religion, sexual identity and Good Taste.

Lane plays Max Bialystock, the schlockmeister. His latest one-night stand is Funny Boy, a musical version of Hamlet. He insists that he was once the King of Broadway -- and Lane makes you believe him. This farceur's face is all swirling lines; he's hypnotically silly. When Max woos the old ladies who are his backers, Lane stays in comic control of every extra pound on his squat, oblong body.

Zero Mostel, who originated the part on-screen, could be intermittently hilarious. But Lane is easier to believe as a lovable, overgrown rapscallion. He celebrates the role as he plays it: He gives it a parade-balloon kind of levity.

Broderick plays Leo Bloom (the Gene Wilder character), the accountant who comes up with their get-rich-quick scheme and becomes Max's partner-in-art-crime. As they seek the worst project, director and cast to mount a sure-fire fiasco -- they think they find it in a love letter to the Third Reich, Springtime for Hitler -- Lane and Broderick upend the usual Laurel and Hardy chemistry between a pushy, weighty figure and a vertically profiled hysteric.

Broderick starts out as over-the-top as Lane, and for a while, you fear disaster. But then he relaxes and lets the material carry him. He becomes an affectionate caricature of delayed manhood. By the time he and the partners' bombshell Scandinavian receptionist-star, Ulla (Uma Thurman), dance to the you-made-me-love-you ballad "The Face," he's blissful. It's the high point for Broderick and Thurman -- as a terpsichorean team they're a couple of swells. As a piece of moviemaking, The Producers is a shambles. Still, it's a very enjoyable shambles (so was Brooks' primitive 1968 original). The show's Broadway director-choreographer, Susan Stroman, in her filmmaking debut, blunts her own crackerjack effects with her over-insistent camera moves and editing. But the performers trust her. In her own movie-clumsy way, she preserves their inspiration.

Those who've seen the stage production will doubtless get a kick -- make that a whole chorus line of kicks -- from the returning cast members, including Lane, Broderick, Gary Beach as queenly Broadway director Roger De Bris and Roger Bart as his "common-law assistant," Carmen Ghia. Beach kills when he takes over the role of Hitler in B&B's almost-sure-to-flop show, Springtime for Hitler. He does the near-impossible: He tops the title number when he belts out "Heil Myself." Even in the stage directions, Brooks and his co-writer, Tom Meehan, instruct the actor playing Roger / Hitler to sit on the rim of the stage like Judy Garland at the Palace. Beach uses that cue to establish a risibly mincing conspiracy with the audience.

Devotees of the stage production may miss Cady Huffman as Ulla, but Thurman has her own stylized luminosity. And Will Ferrell should win over Ferrell nonbelievers with his stand-out, far-from-stand-up performance as Hitler-loving playwright Franz Liebkind. In an inspired choice, Ferrell makes him fiercely yet also childishly delusional, as if deep down, he knows that Bialystock and Bloom may not buy into the Siegfried Oath or feel comfortable singing Hitler's favorite song, "Der Guten Tag Hop Clop." To borrow from Misery, he's less a rabid Nazi than Hitler's No. 1 Fan.

Movie cultists who stayed away from the musical should relax. Brooks' tunes and lyrics complete the comedy rather than get in its way. They provide things that Brooks' own direction lacked in 1968, including pace and tempo.

More important, the score proves a surprisingly confident and witty pastiche of every type of traditional musical hit of stage and screen, from Annie Get Your Gun to Singin' in the Rain. The songs bring out the wish fulfillment underneath the burlesque. They turn The Producers into a barbed yet sunny-bawdy daydream of the risks and euphoria of New York's opening nights.

The Producers (Universal) Starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell. Directed by Susan Stroman. Rated PG-13. Time: 134 minutes.

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