|The Producers (2005)
For some, the comedy of Mel Brooks is an acquired taste. For my
money, he reached his pinnacle with the back-to-back gems BLAZING
SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN back in the 1970s. Even earlier,
he had won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1968 cult film
THE PRODUCERS. When I finally saw that movie more than a decade
after it first was released, I wasn’t impressed. By then, it seemed
dated, particularly the hippie character portrayed by Dick Shawn and
the mincing stereotypes of the homosexual characters. The humor was
vulgar and crude, but some of it was funny and watching Zero Mostel
and Gene Wilder interact was amusing. More than thirty years later,
Brooks hit upon the idea of turning the film into a stage musical and
the result was one of those phenomena that inexplicably hit a nerve
with the general public.
The Broadway incarnation of THE PRODUCERS starred Nathan
Lane and Matthew Broderick and became a must-see event. Prices
were raised to an astronomical $400+ for the best seats (with some
perks thrown in) and scalpers were getting as much as $1000 for
tickets. The show, with a score by Brooks and a book by Brooks and
Thomas Meehan, won an unprecedented 12 Tony® Awards and settled
in for a seemingly long run. Although audiences dwindled somewhat
when the original stars left, Lane and Broderick were persuaded
to return (at reportedly record salaries) and once again,
THE PRODUCERS became the hottest show in town. It would perhaps
only be a matter of time before Hollywood would turn the project back
into a movie.
Brooks, who obviously had a controlling interest in the film,
decided not to direct the musical and entrusted the film to novice
Susan Stroman, an acclaimed stage director and choreographer.
Stroman, who began as a chorus dancer, had worked with some of
the major figures in late 20th Century theater, including Bob Fosse
and Harold Prince. In her choreography, she has often been
influenced by movie musicals and much of her staging is cinematic.
But like her mentor Harold Prince (who stepped behind the cameras
for two films, SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE and A LITTLE NIGHT
MUSIC), Stroman as filmmaker seems to be unable to translate that
cinematic stage technique to the big screen.
Now, I will admit that the stage musical held little interest for
me. A friend of mine gave me the original cast recording and the songs,
in my humble opinion, are some of the worst ever written for the
Broadway stage. The lyrics tend to consist of a phrase or two that
are constantly repeated and the music is trite and uninspiring. After
listening to the recording twice, I consigned the CD to the bottom
shelf next to the other shows to which I rarely, if ever, listen.
Of course, the material has been retained for the film, although
significant changes have been made. Lane’s opening number, which
sets up his character and which was filmed, has been inexplicably cut.
(Speculation is that because it uses a particular four-letter word that
it might have endangered the PG-13 rating.) The film drags terribly
in the early scenes. It’s perhaps notable that those actors from the
original cast (Lane, Broderick, Gary Beach, Roger Bart) all play their
scenes as if they were still on stage projecting to the upper balconies.
With the camera in close-up, this is deadly. There is no nuance to
the performances, they are pitched at such a theatrical level, it
overwhelms the material. Newcomers Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman
fare slightly better, bringing at least a semblance of how to perform
before the cameras. (I was so bored in the early sequences, my
attention drifted to looking closely at the set decoration which
includes a few “in-jokes.” For example, when Leo Bloom – Broderick’s
character – arrives at the offices of Max Bialystock – Lane – the
calendar reads June 16th, the date that James Joyce set Ulysses.
Later, I started playing a game of spotting Broadway performers
who were cast in small parts, like Karen Ziemba as one of the
attendees of the opening of “Funny Boy,” or Brent Barrett as one
of Beach's entourage or Brad Oscar as a cab driver, etc. I even
spotted Al Rodriguez, someone who used to work in the office
across the hall from me, in one of the numbers.)
And I haven’t even begun to deal with the gay characters stage
director Roger DeBris (Beach) and his “common-law” assistant Carmen
Ghia (Bart). Both are played as such mincing, overly exaggerated
caricatures that they are degrading to gay men everywhere. These are
the equivalent of the roles foisted on Stepin Fetchit, scenes which
today are so insulting they rarely see the light of day. Of course,
those with little understanding or knowledge of history will find these
characters hysterical because they are supposed to be "post-modern."
To that, all I can say is "Feh!"
There will be an audience for this movie given its huge success on
stage. Humor is obviously a personal issue. During the screening I
attended, there was continued laughter from particular individuals. I
laughed only once – at Will Ferrell’s character during an audition
sequence. Otherwise, I found the film painfully unfunny. In fact, Lane’s
screeching and Broderick’s tics began to give me a headache.
The movie musical has been on life support for several years,
despite the best attempts by some to reinvigorate it. There have been
several worthy attempts in the recent past, CHICAGO,
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and RENT come immediately to
mind. There have also been a few stinkers like BEYOND THE SEA and
DE-LOVELY. THE PRODUCERS clearly falls into the latter category.
It's not exactly the death knell for the movie musical, but it sure seems
like a warning sign.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual humor and references
Running time: 134 mins.
Viewed at the Universal Screening Room
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.