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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "The Producers" (2005)



Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” will always be funny. I know that now. Having seen the original many times and having seen this reinvention once, I can honestly say that the material holds up beautifully and probably always will. With or without musical numbers, Mel Brooks’ tale of a Broadway producer who sets out to make the world’s worst play has a timeless appeal. It’s pretty hard to screw up. Though the new version doesn’t quite achieve the status of “classic,” it succeeds in having a fresh and funny life of its own. If you’ve seen the original countless times, you already know much of the dialogue you’re about to hear, and if you’ve seen it that many times, you probably won’t mind seeing it again.


The story remains the same. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) has just produced a major Broadway flop out of Hamlet by turning it into a musical. His timid, obsessive compulsive accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) informs him that under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit (we never do find out those circumstances, but whatever). Inspired, Max decides to look for the worst play ever written and finds a musical called “Springtime For Hitler,” written by former Nazi (and rooftop bird keeper) Franz Liebkind (Will Farrell). Furthermore, they hire the worst director, a flamboyant pair named Roger (Gary Beach) and Carmen (Roger Bart), as well as a Swedish bombshell, Ulla (Uma Thurman), as a secretary.


Not much has changed in the story department, except that the character of Lorenzo St. DuBois (“That’s our Hitler!”) unfortunately never turns up. Dick Shawn’s character in the original remains one of the weirdest, most inspired comedy creations of all time. Instead, Brooks opts to have the Franz Liebkind do double duty as both author and star, mainly because Liebkind becomes such a control freak and is the only one who knows Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop, a strange paddy-cake-like shuffle dance. Furthermore, the role of Ulla has been upgraded to romantic interest for Bloom as well as object of lust for Bialystock.


Of course, the musical numbers remain the biggest alteration. Some of them work, some feel a bit unnecessary. “Opening Night,” which opens the film, is the sort of gleeful pan a critic secretly loves to dish out on a major bomb. Other songs, such as “We Can Do It” and “You Never Say Good Luck On Opening Night” pad out the material and don’t really add anything. Fortunately, the musical numbers have been treated as old-fashioned movie musicals by director Susan Stroman. Broderick and Thurman in particular have a dance together that seems lifted out of an old Rogers/Astaire film and with a Technicolor glow.


If there’s one glaring element that goes against the success of this new version, it’s that Broderick can’t do manic obsessive-compulsive like Gene Wilder. He tries, but it doesn’t work. It feels forced and not nearly as genuine. However, Broderick does retain the innocence and sweetness that Wilder brought to the role and once those first initial scenes between he and Bialystock come and go, Broderick eases into the role more convincingly. Lane, on the other hand, makes a perfect Bialystock, morally bankrupt and one of the most lovable sleazeballs in comedy history. Thurman and Farrell fare very well, though Farrell seems to be holding back a little, almost too confined to the material to make it his own.


Flaws aside, “The Producers” still makes me laugh out loud. The show-stopping “Springtime For Hitler” sequence still gets a huge laugh, maybe even bigger this time. If nothing else, this version of “The Producers” can serve as a tribute to the genius of Mel Brooks before he began his two-decade slump (somewhere after “History of the World, Part 1”). And if nothing else, this proves once again that if you want to film a stage musical for the big screen, hire a stage director, not a Hollywood director. Unless, of course, you want your film to bomb, in which case I have a doozy of a script for you called “Phantom of the Rent.” Never mind. Stick to “Springtime.” It’s classic.


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