Failing Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Lane) forms a devious plan after a visit from his nervous accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick). Together they scheme to get rich by raising money for a guaranteed musical flop: Springtime For Hitler.
The Producers is a great stage show. Sadly, on screen it remains distinctly a stage show, and rarely comes close to being a great movie.
Where Mel Brooks succeeded with the Broadway production of his near flawless 1968 comedy was in realising that the stage and screen are very different things. In came even bawdier jokes and a selection of jaunty numbers that kept things running at breakneck speed. In the transformation back to a movie, Brooks and director Susan Stroman (who crafted the stage show) have often neglected to observe their own rules. Attempts to adapt the topped-out nature of the stage play and refine its comedy to the less forgiving rhythms of the cinema screen are minimal.
Stroman kicks the show off well, apparently aiming for MGM homage. It’s colourful, brash and cheerfully proud of its own artifice. If she’d stuck to her guns the movie would have been infinitely more enjoyable, but with much of the action confined to Bialystock’s office it starts to feel cramped and stagebound rather than enjoyably stagey. There’s no question that Stroman knows how to choreograph a musical number (I Wanna Be A Producer builds cleverly on the stage version and Springtime for Hitler remains a joy), but she’s less confident with a camera. The dance sequences beg for a camera to dance with them, rather than watch statically from the audience.
However, the cast could never be accused of lack of gusto. Nathan Lane is brilliantly slimy as Bialystock; Broderick fares less well, inviting unfavourable comparisons with Gene Wilder and overdoing the facial expressions for the people in the cheap seats. The newcomers are inspired additions. Will Ferrell is everything you’d hope he’d be as a crazed Nazi, but it’s Uma Thurman, slinking every curve she has as sexy secretary Ulla, who’s the real surprise. Hoofing impressively and exhibiting a sturdy set of pipes, she peps up the movie whenever she’s on screen.
Thanks to the bravura cast and the inherent quality of the little-changed script there are plenty of gentle laughs. With less faithfulness and a little more of the same bravery that messed with a classic movie and created a classic stageshow, this could have run and run.
As a chance to see the celebrated Broadway show with the original cast, this is a treat. As a re-interpretation of a classic, though, its a disappointment.