Max Bialystock's (Nathan Lane) latest Broadway flop, "Happy Guy", a musical based on "Hamlet", has just opened and closed on the same night. His accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) reviews the books and realizes Max raised $2,000 more than he spent on the show. Because the show flopped, this isn't a huge problem, leading Leo to surmise that a producer could make more from a flop than a hit. Max latches onto the idea and they partner to find a surefire stinker. Max and Leo stumble upon "Springtime for Hitler" by Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), the perfect candidate and then hire the worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and his "common law" assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart). All the makings of a surefire flop. Right?
Mel Brooks' "The Producers" returns to the big screen, via the Great White Way, in this musical version starring many of the same actors who appeared in the show on Broadway. This new version is fun, slightly different, more of a compliment, than a replacement, to the original starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.
Lane and Broderick are both very good. Lane bears a striking resemblance to Mostel and, initially, I found this to be distracting. Physically, he could almost be Mostel's doppelganger down to the greasy comb-over. But after a while, you just have to let it go. Yes, he looks and acts like the famous comedian, but Lane is a funny guy in his own right. And a pretty good singer. The combination of his manic energy and his ability to sing, make it easy to see why Lane is always such a hit on Broadway. Strangely, Lane had another huge hit on Broadway some years ago with a new production of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" in which he took on the role originated by, you guessed it, Zero Mostel.
And Lane, with his rich history on Broadway, is a great choice to reinterpret Bialystock. He doesn't reinterpret so much as he refocuses. Bialystock is a desperate man, mounting one flop after another, desperate for the next chance at a hit. Each of these flops takes more out of him that he cares to let on, or admit to. His investors, a group of female senior citizens, complete with blue hair and walkers, will give him their `checkie' only after a little `touch me- feel me'. Lane humorously conveys the desperation and resignation his character has come to realize. Much more attracted to his new secretary, Ulla (Uma Thurman), a Swedish bombshell, he realizes the geriatric set is his bread and butter and he has to keep them happy.
Matthew Broderick is a big surprise. He hasn't been this funny, this uninhibited in a long time, since perhaps "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". As Leo Bloom, he only hints at Gene Wilder's performance, making the role his own. The moment when he freaks out and reveals his security blanket is a truly funny bit, immediately creating the character, neuroses and all.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Uma Thurman can sing and dance, assuming someone isn't singing for her. As Ulla, she makes the dumb vixen believable. But in the performance, we get a sense that she isn't just dumb; there is maybe just a little bit more to her. Sure she's beautiful, she's dumb, but she also has dreams, wants to fall in love.
Of course, the main difference between the two film versions, the main reason the film was remade, is the addition of music. Someone somewhere recognized that the material, about Broadway producers trying to mount a huge flop, was a natural to be a musical in its own right. The 1968 version only had a little music, during the actual stage production. This new version has music throughout, providing homage to the musicals of the 40s and 50s.
I'm not sure why they made this decision, but "The Producers" is a very old-fashioned musical. It was the right decision and I even get the sense it was a calculated decision. Let's face it. The demographic that goes to see a Broadway musical isn't getting any younger. Rather than attempt to get this group to enjoy a more modern musical, they have catered to this demographic, turning back the clock and making "The Producers" homage to the great studio musicals. The calculation clearly paid off. The Broadway show earned one of the highest one day ticket sales ever recorded.
The film retains many of these old-fashioned elements, leading us to expect Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to appear at any moment. It may not be groundbreaking, but it works. In "I Wanna Be a Producer", Matthew Broderick escapes a mind-numbing job as an accountant and imagines dancing with an ever-increasing cast of dancing girls up, down, over and across steps reflecting his name in lights. Broderick and Lane share "We Can Do It", each singing different verses, until they are soon singing the same song. Lane and Thurman pay homage to Astaire and Rogers as they dance through Bialystock's newly painted white office, as tinges of blue glow through out. All of this works because it is done well and could've been lifted straight from a Gene Kelly film.
It is refreshing to watch a "Mel Brooks' Film" again. Let's face it. "Blazing Saddles" would never be made today in a Hollywood filled with people afraid of what might offend someone. "Blazing Saddles" is a hilarious film, but many of the jokes are at the expense of particular types of people. The "outrageous" comedies we see today are all about Caucasians getting into "outrageous" situations. "The Producers" is a mild throwback to an era that would make a "Mel Brooks' Film", at least when they were funny. Brooks' funniest films are his most outrageous, filled with many un-PC jokes. "The Producers" is a milder, tamer, but still funny version of the old Mel Brooks we all loved. Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) are the kind of characters only Mel Brooks would, could put in a film. By the time Brooks is done, we have a man dressing in a ball gown and wig, the Village People dancing down stairs and a gay swami all added to the mix. And it's funny.
I'm not sure how the idea popped into Mel Brooks' head, but it was a good idea and now "The Producers" has come full circle.