The Producers By Kirk Honeycutt The Hollywood Reporter
Perhaps the most telling thing about "The Producers," the film version of Mel Brooks' Broadway musical hit based on his celebrated 1968 film comedy, is that the best two performances belong to Uma Thurman, as a Swedish smorgasbord of feminine delights known as Ulla, and Will Ferrell, as unrepentant Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. For the film to work, though, the two best roles should belong to Tony-winning Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the title roles.
Lane and Broderick have played these roles 300-and-something times, and it shows. All of their gestures, grimaces, songs, dances and action have a tired, over-rehearsed quality. Worse, theirs is broad, physical shtick conceived for balcony seats in a theater. Neither actor has rethought his performance for the screen.
This "Producers," shot almost entirely on soundstages with only a few Manhattan exteriors, represents a historical record of the popular stage show, which earned 12 Tonys. Universal and Columbia Pictures can expect modest boxoffice business from fans of the musical and the fondly remembered original film, but this means an older audience, one more likely to catch up with the film on DVD.
The new film has an additional handicap. While the reputation of the original film has possibly outstripped its actual artistic achievements, there is no question that the film did contain two insanely talented comedy performers at the top of their game: the late Zero Mostel as morally bankrupt and fading Broadway producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as the exceptionally neurotic accountant Leo Bloom. No pair of actors, not even those as gifted as Lane and Broderick, can withstand comparison to the manic inventiveness of the originals.
The story, save for minor tinkering, remains the same. Max's Broadway career has hit such a low ebb that he must raise money by romancing rich old ladies. When timid and nervous Leo goes over Max's pathetic financial records, he inadvertently hits upon a infallible way to make a fortune on Broadway: Raise more money than you need to stage an intentional flop. No investor will want to examine the books for a turkey, so you pocket the difference.
The two come up with a sure-fire flop: a lighthearted, revisionist musical about the Nazi era, "Springtime for Hitler." They swiftly secure the rights from the show's pigeon-raising author Franz (Ferrell in sweetly controlled craziness), then hire the worst director imaginable. This would be Roger De Bris (a hilarious Gary Beach), who prefers to wear dresses and, along with his assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), believes the key to everything is "Keep It Gay."
As a perk justified by their certain success -- er, failure -- the two producers hire Ulla (Thurman), a luscious blond actress, as their secretary-receptionist. This turns out to be a perk for audiences as well because Uma does Ulla like nobody's business. In her audition number, "When You've Got It, Flaunt It," Thurman puts the voom back into va-va-va-voom and soon has girl-shy Leo's head spinning.
For that matter, all of Brooks' musical numbers, including the catchy "Springtime for Hitler" from the original film, are clever and fun. Brooks might have had a fine career as a Broadway songwriter and lyricist if he hadn't chosen to become an award-winning film producer, writer, director and actor.
Understandably, Brooks wanted to turn directing reins over to someone else for this second "Producers." But tapping Susan Stroman, the director and choreographer of the original stage musical, was a mistake. The film needed fresh eyes and an experienced filmmaker to reconceptualize "The Producers" for the screen.
Her dances, the artificial sets (by Mark Weisberg) and bright costumes (by William Ivey Long) all are terrific if this were a stage show, but unfortunately, it's a movie. John Bailey and Charles Minsky's cameras never quite hit upon a style or movements that might invigorate a stage show the way Stephen Goldblatt did for "Rent."
"The Producers" is simply a missed opportunity.
Universal and Columbia Pictures present a Brooksfilm production
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Screenwriters: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan
Music-lyrics: Mel Brooks
Producers: Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger
Directors of photography: John Bailey, Charles Minsky
Production designer: Mark Weisberg
Co-producer: Amy Herman
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Max Bialystock: Nathan Lane
Leo Bloom: Matthew Broderick
Ulla: Uma Thurman
Franz Liebkind: Will Ferrell
Roger De Bris: Gary Beach
Carmen Chia: Roger Bart
Mr. Marks: Jon Lovitz
Hold Me-Touch Me: Eileen Essell
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time 134 minutes