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The Producers

An Uninspired, Unimaginative Stage-to-Screen Adaptation

Based on the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, The Producers reunites Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the critically lauded roles that resulted in both performers receiving Tony Award nominations; Nathan Lane won for Lead Actor in Musical, with The Producers also winning another 11 Tonys, including Best Musical. For those not in the know, the Broadway musical was based on the often hilarious, ribald 1968 comedy written and directed by Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles). Brooks, however, relinquished the directing chair to Susan Stroman, the director/choreographer of the Broadway musical who makes her big-screen debut with this film. Alas, whatever mix of elements, e.g., songs, lyrics, performances, humor, made the Broadway musical a critical and commercial hit are in short supply here, proving that big-screen adaptations of Tony Award-winning musicals reuniting crew and cast from the original production aren't guaranteed to succeed --in fact, the opposite may be true.

Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), an insecure, take-no-risks type stuck in a dull, go-nowhere job as a public accountant who daydreams of becoming a big-time Broadway producer, meets Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), a down-at-his-heels producer nursing the wounds from his latest Broadway fiasco (a musical/comedy adaptation of one of William Shakespeare's lesser known plays, Hamlet). In short order, Leo appears at Bialystock's rundown office (it doubles as Bialystock's apartment) to review Bialystock's shaky finances when he nonchalantly tosses out a patently illegal moneymaking scheme: sell double the shares in a Broadway flop to unsuspecting investors and pocket the difference. Bloom balks, but Bialystock pursues his new partner, finally convincing him that Bloom's plan is no-risk, all reward.

To put their fraudulent plan in action, Bloom and Bialystock dig deep into Bialystock's musty archives, hoping to find the worst play ever written. They do, thanks to Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), an obviously deranged ex-Nazi who's written an ode to his Dear Leader, "Springtime for Hitler". After some haggling (and uncomfortable goose-stepping), Bloom and Bialystock convince Liebkind to allow them to produce his play for the stage.

Bloom and Bialystock then add the worst director to their crew, Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), a flamboyantly gay drag queen with impeccably bad taste. Roger's services are a package deal, as they also include Roger's lifetime companion/personal assistant, Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart). Enter Ulla (Uma Thurman), an Amazonian blonde (she's Swedish) hoping to obtain a role in Leo and Max's next production, whatever it might be. Both Bloom and Bialystock are besotted with Ulla, despite her height advantage (or perhaps because of that advantage) and her charm (due mostly to her mangled English).

As anyone familiar with the original film or the Broadway adaptation knows, the best laid plans of Bloom and Bialystock go comically, absurdly awry, which, in turn, leads to much hand-wringing but, given that The Producers is a farce, little in the way of soul-searching for the corrupt protagonists. Bloom and Bialystock are classic con men, or at least Bialystock is, with Bloom as an eager pupil willing to break a few, inconvenient laws to make his lifelong ambition of becoming a Broadway producer come true. Neither character is particularly sympathetic. Bialystock can be certainly described as pathetic, thanks to his do-anything-to-make-a-buck approach to his chosen profession. He's not above (or is it below?) wooing his geriatric investors (all of them lustful women). Bloom might have the semblance of a conscience, but he's easily seduced by Bialystock's pitch for fame, money, and women (not necessarily in that order).

Tasteless, crass, crude, vulgar, offensive, and certainly a product of its times (just take a look at The Producers' 60s-era sexual and gender politics), The Producers continuing appeal comes from its refreshing, un-PC jokes and storyline. With Bialystock's jokes about bedding his geriatric investors, outrageously gay characters (or caricatures, if you prefer), and ridicule at the expense of Hitler and the Nazis, no one can accuse The Producers of playing it safe (or rather playing it safe back in 1968, when The Producers was more likely seen as an innovative comedy). The Producers suffers from more than one flat joke and several uninspired scenes centered on physical humor.

Where The Producers is at its most entertaining, however, can be found in the initial scene featuring theater director/drag queen Roger De Bris, his assistant/longtime companion Carmen Ghia and, in an anachronistic touch, the Village People; and later, the show stopping number from "Springtime for Hitler" (more lavish for the stage musical and the film adaptation of the musical than the scene found in the original film). It's not surprising that Gary Beach's gleefully over-the-top performance also won a Tony for his featured turn as Roger De Bris.

Like the recent stage-to-screen adaptation of Rent, The Producers plays it safe and reunites the original Broadway cast, with the exception of Ulla and Franz Liebkind, played on stage by Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar, respectively. Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprise their Tony-nominated performances for the screen adaptation but, alas, Lane fares better than Broderick. With his rubber face, expressive eyebrows, and hyperkinetic performance, Lane is watchable from the first scene through the last.

As the presumed straight man with the odd foray into hysterics, Broderick is often left to over-react to Lane's effusive line deliveries. Too much of his performance, however, is pitched broadly. Of course, The Producers is meant to be a broad, comedic farce, but Broderick spends one too many scenes mugging for the camera (and his affected accent proves to be a constant distraction). Broderick also looks pale and tired throughout the film, with the exception of his back-from-Brazil scenes, but some of the blame lies with Susan Stroman, who sticks too closely to what she knows best (and doesn't reign Broderick's performance in). Unfortunately, Stroman's best is just not good enough.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars