Like an entertaining guest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home, The Producers overstays its welcome — a feeling exacerbated for anyone familiar with the compact 88-minute 1968 film.
When Mel Brooks turned that film into a Broadway musical, he didn’t remove much of the original script, mostly just adding songs and reworking the story to remove the part of Lorenzo St. DuBois (or L.S.D.), the original’s stage Hitler, because Brooks felt no one could replace the late Dick Shawn in the role. The choice was understandable since the film, though originally a flop, became a huge cult hit. Legend has it that Peter Sellers once brought a 16 mm print of it to George Harrison, who so loved it that it was subsequently never off his projector. You don’t monkey too much with that kind of obsessive attachment.
Fortunately, most of Brooks’ additions were about as entertaining as the original material. A similar faithfulness permeates Susan Stroman’s film version of the Broadway show — not always to the film’s betterment. It was, of course, unthinkable that anyone but Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick would take on the roles of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, but neither they, nor Stroman, seem to have considered that it wasn’t necessary for them to play their roles as if they were trying to make sure that the people in the back row of the gallery seats were getting it. Granting that Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder were hardly representative of the school of naturalistic acting in the original, Messrs. Lane and Broderick are occasionally so much in the barnstorming mode that … well, let’s just say they wouldn’t be served at a kosher table.
Your mileage may vary, but it took me about 15 minutes to acclimate myself to their performances and just go with the film. From then on, it pretty much had me. As noted, the script adheres fairly closely to the original, so if you’re a fan of it, you’ll be glad to find the plot largely unchanged. It’s still the story of selling several thousand percent of a guaranteed-to-flop Broadway show — Springtime for Hitler (described as “a gay romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgarten”) — only to have the show disastrously turn out to be a huge hit when the audience decides that this “love letter to Hitler” is meant to be funny.
Most of the best lines from the 1968 film are retained and they seem as fresh as they ever did — though I maintain the original line “it’s enough to make you puke” is funnier than “it’s enough to make you heave” (puke is just a funnier word). The plot change that removes L.S.D. from the proceedings is at least as good as the original, if not better — plus, it affords Nathan Lane a concentrated comedic sequence all his own (read: it owes nothing to Mostel’s performance) where he tries to hoodoo the show.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism about first-timer Susan Stroman’s direction being “stagebound,” and I don’t buy it. Her direction is theatrical, yes, but the whole film is deliberately theatrical. Frankly, I didn’t find her handling of the musical numbers all that less cinematic than the ones crafted by Rob Marshall in Chicago. (The one really dubious move is her tragic literal mindedness in pointlessly showing us the 45-degree-angle mirror that allows the theater audience to see the overhead view of dancers forming a swastika. Busby Berkeley never bothered with this kind of thing and neither should have Stroman.) I think a lot of the criticism stems from her decision to set the film in the 1950s — a decision that generally serves the film well, but which gives it a kind of “retro” look that makes it have something of the aura of the gaudier 1950s musicals. The movie’s not so much stage-bound as it comes across as a little old-fashioned.
But is that necessarily such a bad thing? I don’t think so. I like the fact that it’s big and obvious and colorful and aware of its own ridiculousness. This last quality is in fact essential to any version of The Producers, a work that traffics in the ridiculous for its own sake. Most of the songs aren’t anything to get excited about — “Springtime for Hitler” remains Brooks’ best tune, though the song on the roof with Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (a surprisingly good Will Ferrell) and some delightfully hokey animatronic pigeons is pretty good — but they pass muster well enough and blessedly sound nothing like most recent generic Broadway show tunes.
Personally, I just like being able to walk down the hall of a multiplex and hear songs coming out of the theater rather than explosions. The remake in no way eclipses the original film. It isn’t meant to, but it works on its own terms and is a version of The Producers well worth having. Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke