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The Producers Movie
by Rob Kendt


Uma Thurman & Matthew Broderick in The Producers
"I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" cries pent-up accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) from the edge of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Be careful what you wish for, Leo. The new film version of the Broadway juggernaut The Producers tries very hard to evoke the Technicolor glamour of great MGM musicals from the 1950s, from Singin' in the Rain to The Band Wagon, but the nostalgia trip doesn't quite come off.

Maybe that's because Mel Brooks' original Producers movie (most of his movies, in fact) already handily parodied some of the same musical conventions. More likely it's because the new film hasn't got a Gene Kelly, a Cyd Charisse, or even a Donald O'Connor anywhere in sight. Quick head count: How many want to see Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman dress up pretty and pretend they can dance?

On the other hand, director Susan Stroman's new film does have one reason to exist, and his name is Nathan Lane. As craven, decrepit flimflam man Max Bialystock, Lane packs more comic value into a few moments than most films do in their entirety, and he has the on-screen sense to modulate if not quite downsize his definitive stage performance for the camera. He still employs about four different vocal registers with the precision of a coloratura soprano, but it's his physical presence that really registers: I dare you not to giggle at the sight of his Droopy Dog frame bobbing down a flight of stairs, or the elaborate, comb-over-tangling double take he pulls when Leo suggests they put their own money into Springtime for Hitler, their would-be stage flop.

If only the rest of this strange gene-splicing of theater and film made as much sense. Stroman, making her screen directing debut, deftly turns the number "We Can Do It" into a chase scene, and with "I Wanna Be a Producer" invokes the musical-fantasy device so well employed by Rob Marshall's film of Chicago. But mostly Stroman struggles to find the right balance: When she transplants "Little Old Ladyland" to Fifth Avenue in broad daylight, it's appalling, and when she just doesn't bother to lift a number like "Keep It Gay" out of its stage frame, it looks cheesy.

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It's a definite plus that, as in the original 1968 film, we get to see exactly how the first-night audience is won over to Bialystock and Bloom's tasteless "neo-Nazi musical." But Stroman awkwardly hedges

Nathan Lane in The Producers
her bets here--showing us, for instance, the infamous swastika-by-Busby-Berkeley formation first in its original filmic form, from above, and then taking the punch out of that image by showing us the tilted-mirror translation she did onstage. Both were brilliant devices in their respective medium, but smashed together here they effectively cancel each other out.

From Lane on down, the stagier actors fare best: Gary Beach as ultra-violet director Roger De Bris and Roger Bart as his sibilant assistant Carmen Ghia are properly larger than life, and they pump giddy helium into every scene they're in. As the unhinged Nazi playwright Franz, Will Ferrell is a major disappointment--he's all winks and no snap--while the lush Thurman is thoroughly game, utterly watchable, and as artificial as her bottle-blonde locks. (The best thing about her is her height, which provides the reliable sight gag of her standing at least a head taller than both her leading men.)

Simpering and sputtering at the center of this eager-to-entertain contraption is what I can only call the Broderick Question. Forgive me if I didn't get the memo, but exactly when did this boyish, ironic rake assume the position of the American theater's reigning nerd? As weird and unconvincing as this act looks onstage (as in the so-so current Odd Couple revival), on film it is positively off-putting. Aside from the many missteps it has made going from stage to screen, this may finally be The Producers' biggest liability: Broderick's phoniness, enlarged and underlined on film, drains any of the nervy tang this dish once had.

Among the movie's small in-jokes (watch for the byline on a review of Funny Boy), the most wistful one is a wall of Broadway posters from 1959--the year The Producers is set. In addition to the fictional Springtime for Hitler, the theatergoer's choices that year included West Side Story, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. It's a minority position, I know, but by my lights none of those stage classics were made into particularly good films. The same is true of The Producers--though I have the sneaking suspicion that I won't be in the minority on this point.

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 12/16/2005 11:04:00 AM

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