For a Mel Brooks idea hustled from screen to stage to screen — not to mention one starring Nathan Lane, whose voice never met an eardrum it didn’t burst — The Producers is, at times, improbably still.
Perhaps before a leisurely meal break at the craft services cart, director Susan Stroman and cinematographers John Bailey and Charles Minsky often plant their camera in one spot, with the occasional minor pan, zoom or pull-back. Close-ups are so claustrophobic that they could send fussbudget accountant Leo Bloom into a freak-out.
This relaxed style sometimes appeals, if only by virtue that it’s a dying breed in the wake of modern movie musicals. The best songs, like “This Face,” snap and crackle like old-time Technicolor extravaganzas; they’re rooted not in flashy filmmaking technique, just great pastel lighting and classy choreography. When the film’s skyline twinkles, it’s both chintzy and beautiful.
But this golden-era-of-Hollywood filmmaking flirtation fools no one. This loud, brassy movie offers quick, frequent reminders that it’s a Mel Brooks movie starring Nathan Lane. What helps is that many of them are laugh-out-loud witty until the third act, which is all trifling chuckles.
In real life, fornicating puppets on Broadway win Tonys. So a fake Broadway with a fawning musical about Hitler isn’t the joke anymore. Brooks now aims at a far-easier target — conventions of the Great White Way — and has gone from cutting to cute.
The movie explodes a painted-pink pipe bomb of stereotypes and draws some big laughs, but takes no risks. If it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany, this comically neutral film is summertime for Brooks and Switzerland. It’s the same for Lane and Matthew Broderick, both reprising original Broadway roles with the sort of skate-by timing that feels like they’re filling a laugh quotient.
Has-been theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Lane) has resorted to sleeping with little old ladies to fund his latest shows. Not surprisingly, Max is getting audited by Leo (Broderick), a pasty, sweaty dork who fetishizes his blue security blanket, pronounces Broadway as two equally accented words and dreams of being a producer.
Leo sees the ability to profit from an expensive flop as an academic accounting theory. Max sees it as a get-rich-quick scheme. Both ultimately see it as a way out of their muck-stuck lives. They deem as the worst musical ever “Springtime for Hitler” — written by Nazi crackpot Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), to be directed by flamboyant transvestite Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and to star Amazonian secretary-nymphomaniac Ulla (Uma Thurman). Problems arise when it’s a huge hit.
Those newest to the material offer some of the best performances. Franz’s hissing problem with consonants caters to Brooks’ plays on language, and the character’s big number, “Der Guten Tag Hop Clap,” meshes perfectly with Ferrell’s jones for loosey-goosey physicality. (Ferrell sings that song like a drippy power ballad over the end credits, with subliminal German whispering.)
Thurman is exuberantly silly and sexy as the dim-bulb Swede, and her dance with Broderick during “This Face” radiates with old-Hollywood charm. She exhibits as much conviction here as she did cracking heads as a fierce mama assassin in Kill Bill.
Of the featured stage show returnees, Roger Bart is the only one who throws it all in as Roger’s “common-law” assistant, Carmen Ghia. Dressed as a cross between a hip Vulcan and the demented Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bart embodies the film’s quick-and-easy gay humor. There’s a mania behind his enthusiastic prancing and drawn-out “S” sounds that calls to mind the sort of role Lane broke through with in 1996’s The Birdcage.
Here, Lane forgets there are no cheap seats in first-run movie theaters. There is a momentum to his persistent desperation, but that putters out with “Betrayed.” This literal recap of the movie’s events up to that point feels every second of its four-plus minutes. Everything after that, including forced friend ballad “Til Him,” feels like padding you’ll want to whap your head against.
The end result isn’t sacrilegious to the 1968 classic’s inspiration and ideas, although it proves why the story should only take 88 minutes to be told. It’s no less silly, just more sanitized and, in a thought that would make Max beam, much more marketable.