Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Recycled Farce: The Strained Whimsy of The Producers (2005)



In the annals of media product recycling, few can compare with Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Originally a movie starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in 1968, it established the Mel Brooks style of comedy filmmaking, basically a willingness to do anything for a laugh that he later cemented with genre spoofs such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Since then, Brooks converted the The Producers into a very successful Tony Award winning Broadway musical. I saw a version of it in London, and I was very impressed with its energetic subversive humor, Las Vegas showgirls, and extravagant gay Nazi jokes.

Now, no doubt due to the unusual success of Chicago, Columbia has released the movie version of the musical, and because of the leaden direction of Susan Stroman, the result is less fun even as it remains extraordinarily faithful to the show. I spent much of the film thinking about how its various performers had better roles in other movies. For instance, Matthew Broderick plays Leo Bloom, a nervous dweeby accountant who accidentally gives a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer (Nathan Lane) the idea of intentionally producing a flop to make money. On stage, Leo Bloom’s willingness to admit that he is a “coward,” a “loser,” and a “chicken” works as necessary rapid exposition for his cartoon-like character. When Matthew Broderick sings these lines early on the film, I found it painful and awkward. Poor Matthew Broderick hasn’t played anyone cool since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and here he clings to a shred of a light blue blanket to comfort himself against anxiety. Nathan Lane (as con artist producer Max Bialystock) is better suited to this film than anyone else, but even he seems to strain and mug as he inexplicably prays for Leo to join him in producing a play.

Eventually, the two men find Springtime for Hitler as the musical certain to bomb, and they enlist the help of Will Farrell, as the play’s pro-Nazi writer who talks to pigeons, Uma Thurman, as the Swedish fantasy girl Ulla, and Gary Breach as the flamboyantly gay director. As Ms. Thurman pranced around singing and auditioning for a part, I kept wishing she was off trying to kill Bill instead. Why did she agree to play such a two-dimensional sexpot? So she can stretch her acting skills to song and dance? In a movie where the closeness of the camera tends to call attention to the obscure character motivations of broad farce, Ulla’s attraction to nerdy Leo makes no sense. What was cute and logical on stage becomes bizarre in the movie.

Depending on the production, musicals can lose their appeal quickly. Dancing show-girls dressed in pearls, set-piece show-stopping dance numbers with mirrors, the tendency to slip back into song for one last chorus--it all seems like a brand of flamboyant whimsy that only partially obscures all of the painstaking choreography. As the pro-Nazi playwright, Will Farrell sings, falls to his knees, and advances towards the camera in his World War II helmet and leather coat. Perhaps because the jokes have been recycled so many times, they seem almost abstract. Max Bialystock has to seduce rich old ladies to raise the funds for his plays, so in this version Nathan Lane leads a whole squadron of old women in their identical blue dresses and choreographed walkers out into Central Park. There, just by singing, he seduces them all simultaneously as they swoon in a great line, handing out checks to him as they do so. You might enjoy this kind of extravagant number, or you might prefer to rent the 1968 film and check out the jokes when they were fresher, simpler, and not exaggerated to impress people sitting in the back of the theater.

3 comments:

JUS said...

This was a movie I was interested in because I liked the play and nearly all of the actors. Yet, it was simply a chore to watch.

RCF said...

The film shows the difficulty some directors have adjusting the stage to the screen. It probably would have worked better if none of the Broadway stars were involved, because they were used to exaggerating their act for the stage.

JUS said...

That is an excellent point Film Dr! Certainly, they played it over the top.