Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Out on DVD today is one of my favorite movies from last year, The Producers, adapted from the wildly successful Broadway musical which was itself adpted by Mel Brooks from his 1968 movie.

A few biases I might as well admit: Mel Brooks is one of my cultural heroes, I consider the '68 original to be one of the greatest film comedies ever, I loved the stage show and musicals are one of my favorite genres. So I guess you could say I was predisposed to like this, though it certainly doesn't blind me to its flaws.

Nathan Lane (who goes over the top and keeps climbing) plays flop Broadway producer Max Bialystock, who hits upon a scheme idly proposed by accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick): a producer could make more money from a deliberate flop than from a hit, since investors wouldn't have to be paid back. Suffice to say, in their efforts to produce the worst show imaginable--Springtime For Hitler--complications ensue, involving a Nazi writer (Will Ferrell, very funny), a flaming director and his "common law assistant" (Gary Beach and Roger Bart, both indispensible) and a Swedish secretary named Ulla (Uma Thurman).

In its new form, The Producers loses the crueler edges of the original film, while simultaneously ramping up the stereotypes: all Jews are money-grubbing backstabbers, all germans are Nazis, all theater people are flamboyant queens and all cops are Irish. None of this is offensive, of course, because its all presented with a knowing wink. And the script for this version, closely following the book Brooks and Thomas Meehan wrote for the stage version, may actually improve on the original. And kudos to Brooks for his score as the songs are not only very funny but genuinely melodic.

The weak link here, sad to say, is director Susan Stroman, who so brilliantly directed and choreographed the stage version. This is her first effort as a film director, and she seems to have very little idea of what to do with a camera. She had to restage the dances for the movie, but has no idea how to film the results, using the camera to simply record what's there, not making it an active participant. It's easy to see what she's going for at times--a Fred-and-Ginger-styled number for Broderick and Thurman, for instance--but it's also easy to see she can't quite make it work. None of the numbers are bad, and some are terrific, but as a choreographer turned filmmaker, Bob Fosse she's not.

So The Producers isn't quite the reinvention of the movie musical. But it's hugely enjoyable all the same, and I suspect it might get better through repeated viewings. So go pick up a copy, already. Do it for Mel.