A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 129 mins.
Max Bialystock: Nathan Lane / Leo Bloom: Matthew Broderick / Ulla: Uma Thurman
/ Franz Liebkind: Will Ferrell /Carmen Ghia: Roger Bart / Roger De Bris: Gary Beach
Little Old Lady: Andrea Martin / Other Little Old Lady: Debra Monk
THE PRODUCERS is one of the oddest cinematic animals that I have ever come across. Saying that it is simply a remake does not suffice at all. In actuality, this new PRODUCERS is a remake of a remake, or maybe it could be more aptly called “remake squared.” It was, if I have to remind you, first envisioned by Mel Brooks as the 1968 film comedy of the same name. I think that THE PRODUCERS – the film, that is – is one of the funniest comedies that I have ever seen and would have gladly been placed on my TEN BEST FILMS OF THE 1960's if it were not for a lazy oversight on my part.
THE PRODUCERS was not only an unmitigated laugh riot, but it also helped launch the career of Brooks, who would have a incredibly strong run of zany films in the 1970’s that still hold up as some of the cinema’s most uproariously funny offerings. After THE PRODUCERS came 1974’s BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as well as 1976’s THE SILENT MOVIE. As far as that decade went for laughs, Brooks can take claim to owning that period.
Now, the original PRODUCERS is about as perfect of a screen comedy as they come; a wonderfully droll and cheerfully offensive and crude work that is filled with larger-than-life performances of gusto and energy by the great Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. The film itself has an ingenious narrative of self-absorbed, obsessive, and fiduciary driven characters that sort of mocked the entertainment industry as a whole. It is also one of those rare films that was able to successfully take an potentially polarizing and vile subject matter (in its case, Hitler and Nazi Germany) and lampoon them enough that – dang it – you can laugh at a historical figure that has come to represent the most pungent and contemptible villain ever to walk the earth.
Considering the time frame of the 60’s, where most screen comedies did not ever dare to touch subject matter such as this with a ten-foot pole, THE PRODUCERS remains a landmark film in the annals of parody, satire, and cheeky irreverence. The film still – even in 2005 – has the power to kind of shock one into laughter, which is maybe the point. Brooks made us laugh at Nazism by making it look ridiculous, which only proves my belief that you can, in turn, use just about anything for a joke. It’s all in the execution and delivery that makes it work.
As much as I loved the original PRODUCERS, the thought of it being adapted into any other medium seemed kind of inane to me. Considering that I would obviously carry a considerable amount of baggage with me going into any dramatic remake of a film that I hold in such high regard, discovering that THE PRODUCERS was being made into a Broadway musical years ago seemed like a tough pill to swallow. Honestly, what could they do to improve upon the original? To me, when the musical first came out I was paralyzed with incredulous reactions, most of them directed towards Brooks, who seemed to be going back to the well one too many times for a successfully idea that could be carried forward to profitable fruition. His most recent film offerings, up to that point, were dreadful affairs like the insipid DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT and ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS. So, at face value, it felt like Brooks was reaching out desperately for another hit.
Yet, alas, the Broadway musical of THE PRODUCERS – a remake of the film in its own right – was a juggernaut in terms of popular and critical respectability. Maybe I was wrong after all? I have not been exposed the musical version in any way shape or form, but a clear mind would be able to see the potential of the 1968 comedy as a musical. Since the film was about a musical, it’s not so much of a stretch to see the whole enterprise as a musical. Critics raved about THE PRODUCERS and its handful of Tony awards that it was bestowed is a testament to that. Audiences alike were more than forgiving to Brooks. They flocked to the performances of it, so much so that showings soon became sold out as much as a year in advance.
This, of course, brings us to the newest film incarnation of THE PRODUCERS, which is an adaptation of the Broadway musical which was, in turn, an adaptation of the 1968 film. Perhaps what will make people go even more crossed eyed is the fact that Brooks wrote and directed the original film, wrote and produced the Broadway musical, and now is co-writing and producing this film-musical-adaptation. In a way, Brooks becomes the first Hollywood player – as far as I can tell – that is adapting his own work that was already appropriated from his own past work. Rounding off the production is the presence of the original performers of the Broadway version – Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick – as well as first-time filmmaker Susan Stroman, the latter whose wealth of experience on the stage obviously made it easier for her to make the transition to make a film musical.
So, does this remake of a remake work? The short answer is a resounding yes. Even with my fondness for the original film version, I found it kind of amazing how much I enjoyed this retelling of the story. Truth be told, this musical hits many of the same comedic beats as the 1968 film, and many of the identical jokes, pratfalls, and visual sight gags are rehashed. Nevertheless, I still found myself smiling widely and chuckling hysterically through all of the same things that made me have similar reactions to the first film version. This may, no doubt, be attributed to the power of Brooks as a satirist and screen comedian – his humor in the underlining story has limitless appeal. The fact that it’s told in a new light and with new performers is kind of redundant. No one – in their right mind – would ever make the claim that Lane and Broderick could ever replace the immortally funny performances of Mostel and Wilder. Instead, they sort of channel the work of those actors and mesh them into their own sensibilities as performers. In this way, the new PRODUCERS feels familiar and completely fresh at the same time.
I guess if one also considers the musical as a whole lately, THE PRODUCERS may seem like a large, boisterous and colorful breath of fresh air. The genre itself has not been altogether helped by overstuffed entries like last year’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (a great looking film with sluggish music) or by this year’s absolutely miserable RENT. Seeing the mini-Renaissance that we had with the musical in the earlier part of the current decade, with 2001’s MOULIN ROGUE (one of the most lavish and entertaining films – period – of the decade) and the subsequent CHICAGO (a Best Picture winner), the musical looked poised to make a serious comeback after a state of lethargy.
After a few misfires, THE PRODUCERS is good enough to inspire people to have fun with film musicals again. It’s raucous and randy to the bone, but it’s also lively, spirited, and unapologetically zany, the latter few qualities ones that I think all successful musicals require. The fact that this PRODUCERS is frantic and energized to the point where all of the leads look like their on their fifth straight double espresso is crucial to why the film works. A story that is filled with such an irrepressibly and unrestrained theatricality and lack of subtlety needs an equally exaggerated tone. Sure, Lane and Wilder ham it up with feverous energy, but critics of this approach miss the point; this film is not interpreting a reality that we know – its channeling the Broadway musical’s spirit and paying tribute to it.
The “producers” of the film who embark upon the maddest of mad scams are Max Bialystock (the wonderful Nathan Lane) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick, equally riotous and funny). To say that Max makes bad musicals is an understatement (the introductory scenes show audience reaction to his failed FUNNY BOY: A MUSICAL OF HAMLET, and his office walls are adorned with posters of his other flops, like KING LEER and THE BREAKING WIND). Soon realizing his plight, Max strikes up a scheme at the innocent, hypothetical suggestion of Leo – that being that a producer could, if he raised more money than he needed, make more money with a bomb than a hit. Soon, the two look for the “worst musical ever written” and hit the motherload with “Springtime For Hitler,” a self entitled “gay romp.”
Well, to further their dastardly plan, Leo and Max first must secure the rights from the play’s author, a Neo-Nazi on steroids named Franz (the hyperactively manic Will Ferrell, doing what he does best here). Next on their “to-do list” is getting the worst director of the stage and they find it in the hapless and incredibly naïve Roger De Bris (Gary Beach). He may seem like the most likely choice to make this “gay romp”, seeing as he likes to wear dresses. Not only that, but he also wants to spruce up the musical’s ending by allowing the Nazis to win WWII (“It ends, after all, on such a downer,” he humorously explains). To assist them even further with their momentous task is the presence of the sexy bombshell Ulla (Uma Thurman, never more savory and cute). She has a hectic schedule, to say the least. She gets up at 5am to exercise for 2 hours followed by a one-hour shower. By 9am she likes to practice her singing for two hours and then caps that all off with her favourite activity – sex – at 11am. During the job interview, Max quickly tells her to begin her shift at 11am promptly every day.
This remake is about 95% faithful to the original film and makes minor adjustments here and there. The subplot involving a love affair with Leo and Ulla is a new entity, as is the third act that lengthens itself out a bit too much to a a conclusion (my only real complaint about the film is its final act, which kind of goes on and on and does not really know when to end, despite a gallant and frenzied number involving Lane singing and performing most of the key points of the story that have progressed). The film also stridently follows the 1968 version in some of its more pointed laughs. Yes, I still laugh at the now famous scene that is faithfully recreated when Leo erupts into a fit of nervous and pathological screaming when Leo seems to invade his personal space. Yes, I still laugh at the sight of Max raising his hands in the air and screaming into the air, “God, I want that money!” Yes, I still break up terribly when I hear the line that was the funniest in the original (De Bris: You know, I had no idea that the Third Reich meant Nazi Germany. I mean, the musical is filled with such historical little goodies like that). And…yes…the musical within the musical is still just as hilarious and odious as ever.
Even better than the film’s appropriation of the 1968 version’s jokes are its winning song and dance numbers, all of which are lively, cheerful, spirited, and exuberantly animated. This film had several memorable moments, especially one early scene which shows Leo day dreaming about leaving his accounting office to become a full-fledged producer (all of the accountants in the background hit the keys on their adding machines like some sort of lumbering and monotonous drums that create background music). This moment extends into a fully realized fantasy where Leo dances and sings with chorus girls. I also enjoyed an extended number with Ulla displaying all of her assets – both vocal and physical – to Leo and Max (Thurman is truly wonderful in this sequence). My favourite musical scene in the film would have to be an extended one that shows Max wooing all of the potential - and elderly - financial backers, who seem to come out on to the streets of New York and sort of do a tap dance routine with their walkers. It's a terrifically realized moment of fancy-free exuberance and creativity.
This new PRODUCERS is not as good as the original 1968 PRODUCERS, but saying that in itself is an exercise on my part in frivolity. It’s true that, within the first five or ten minutes, it's really difficult seeing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles that I have always seen immortalized by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Not only that, but the overall broadness of the film, especially in terms of the performances, is equally jarring very early on. Yet, the film soon won over me and became such a delightful romp of over-the-top shenanigans that I could not help but smile and laugh all the way through it. This PRODUCERS is not trying to win favour of the Brooks purists of the original film, nor is it trying to be slavish to the conventions of the Broadway musical. Instead, it’s democratic in trying to appropriate the tone and mood of both past works into this unifying vision. By the time the end credits roll by I was left feeling that this film was a wondrous and magnificently silly ride. Sure, it lacks poise, restraint, and refinement, but it adheres to Max Bialystock’s own philosophy:
“If ya got it, flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!”