In 1968, Brooks was at the top of his game. He was also at the very beginning of it: The Producers was his first feature film, and you can track the quality of his movies on a steady decline which stretches from the awesome Blazing Saddles (1974) to the middling Spaceballs (1987) to the awful Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), Brooks' last appearance behind the camera.
Now, Brooks has relegated himself to writing only, handing the directorial reins for this update over to Susan Stroman, who directed the play but is best known for her choreography work. I can't speak about what Stroman's contributions to the film vs. the stage play are, or how Brooks' new film script diverged from the musical, or whether Brooks might have browbeaten Stroman into making stupid rookie mistakes on her first movie, just like Brooks has been doing for the last 20 years. But I can say that the 2005 version of The Producers is a tragically unfunny mess that will tarnish forever my memory of one of cinema's best films.
For the oblivious, The Producers tells the story of Broadway's worst producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane, taking Zero Mostel's role). After Max's most recent flop, nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick, subbing for Gene Wilder) idly theorizes that done right, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit -- by raising millions of dollars and closing on opening night, so there are no profits to be distributed to the investors. The producers keep all the leftover cash.
The film -- the original, anyway -- then becomes a wild romp as the two team up to find the worst script ever (Springtime for Hitler, a musical about the Third Reich and a love letter to the Führer), the worst director (a self-obsessed cross-dresser), and the worst leading man (a bombed-out hippie who calls himself LSD). The play is horrifying, and in one of the best twists ever, it turns out to be a total smash hit, one of the "so bad it's good" variety.
In this update, the basics of the plot are the same, but the delivery is really quite different. Of course there are a good 40 minutes of extra musical numbers tacked on to the show, but certain aspects of the story are subtly different as well. Bloom is given a deep-seeded childhood desire to become a producer (cue musical number about it). Secretary Ulla (Uma Thurman) isn't a receptionist but an actress who stars in the show. She's given an ill-advised love story with Bloom (cue musical number) which has them eventually jetting off to Rio. LSD is out of the show, and writer Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell) stars in the show. He breaks his leg (oh, get it?) on opening night, and fey director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) goes on in his stead (cue a couple of musical numbers). And, most damningly, the ending is different, though I'll withhold additional info about it for fear of spoiling any more of the movie than I already have.
None of these changes are for the better. In fact, they almost all come across as pathetic attempts to give stars Lane and Broderick more opportunities to mug for the camera in tepid and unnecessary song and dance numbers. While I knew up front that Nathan Lane was no Zero Mostel, I hadn't quite understood how funny Wilder's performance in the original was until I saw Broderick attempt to replicate it here. I'm a big fan of Broderick's work, but it turns out he's no Gene Wilder, either.
Maybe this all works better on stage, where the lavish musical numbers are more vibrant and don't succumb to choppy editing and a feeling that they're forced in where they don't belong. Having one fat, ugly woman in a chorus line of beauties seems like it could be a funny thing, but it just doesn't translate well to the movies, where it seems random, out-of-place, and a little bit cruel.
It all almost becomes worth it when we finally get to the Springtime for Hitler show, which is appropriately gussied up well beyond the low-budget version shot in 1968. It's one of the few times in the film I found myself laughing out loud (and if you're a true fan of the original film and know its backstory in depth, you'll appreciate Brooks' cameo during this sequence). Alas, the film soons crashes to a halt shortly after Springtime, with 30 more minutes of movie that gives us Lane and Broderick singing through three or four more ditties that the film just doesn't need.
Go rent the original Producers instead. There's even a new DVD out.
Who wants a wet herring?
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Susan Stroman