Who says they don't make movie musicals like they used to? The Producers is proof to the contrary, which is a very mixed blessing indeed. Harking back to the presentational style of film adaptations of stage successes like The Music Man and My Fair Lady, this screen version of Mel Brooks' Broadway hit is more a reverential record of the 12-time Tony winner than a real movie. It's as if Brooks and the stage show's director and choreographer Susan Stroman (here making her feature directing debut) couldn't bear to tinker too much with their Great White Way winner; every grimace and raised eyebrow and double take and pratfall is intact, but grotesquely magnified for the big screen. That's not to say the Producers movie isn't sometimes entertaining, but for maximum enjoyment you may want to select a seat in the back row.
For those few readers unfamiliar with the career of Mel Brooks, The Producers began as an outlandish 1968 film starring the great Zero Mostel as unscrupulous Broadway producer Max Bialystock, whose encounter with meek accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) inspires a wild scheme to deliberately create a flop and pocket all the extra cash they've bilked from investors. The show in question is entitled Springtime for Hitler, a can't-miss bomb until their unlikely lead turns it into a freak success. Brooks won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his directing debut, and the cult the movie acquired helped turn the 2001 Broadway musical version (with songs by Brooks) into another personal triumph.
As Max and Leo, Tony winner Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were clearly in their element on the Broadway stage. But under the close scrutiny of the movie camera, it's harder to compete against the indelible work of their predecessors, Mostel and Wilder. The lengthy scene of Max and Leo's first meeting is almost verbatim from the 1968 film, and while the gifted Lane creates a decent Mostel homage, Broderick strains to recapture Wilder's inspired neurosis. Stroman's direction doesn't help, having opted for a comfortable seat in the center orchestra. The play is everything in this uneven movie, which is alternately groan-inducing and side-splitting.
At least the creators' reverence for the show has allowed hilarious supporting players Gary Beach and Roger Bart a big-screen showcase. Their characters, cross-dressing director Roger DeBris and his catlike assistant Carmen Ghia, take gay stereotypes to such an absurd extreme they become curiously disarming. Beach, another Tony winner, is responsible for the movie's delirious high point, as the fey DeBris, a last-minute replacement in the title role of Springtime for Hitler, exhilarates the audience both onscreen and off (especially when he perches on the edge of the stage a la Judy Garland). In fact, the entire Springtime for Hitler sequence, lavishly mounted and beautifully performed, is the one element here that truly improves on the 1968 original.
New to the company are two movie stars. Will Ferrell is more than adequate as crazed Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, but he can't eclipse the memory of Kenneth Mars' singular creation in '68. Uma Thurman certainly has the look and limbs for Max's sexy Swedish secretary Ulla, but musicals are not a likely part of her future.
Occasionally, Stroman opens up the show: There's a production number on New York's Fifth Avenue featuring dozens of old women with walkers (Max's primary backers) that's diverting, and a fun sequence as Leo dreams of escaping his accountant's drudgery. But such numbers are even more dynamic in the confines of a Broadway house; the magic doesn't always translate to the more reality-based screen world. Lane's big second-act summation "Betrayed," a showstopper on Broadway, especially suffers as assembled for film.
Those who loved the original Broadway production of The Producers will be pleased that there's a movie faithfully recapturing one of the biggest stage hits of recent years. The rest of us will find sporadic laughs, while wondering what all the fuss was about.