Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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FILM: The Producers (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick squeeze the very last dime out of their Broadway hit The Producers by bringing it to the big screen.

Once again. After all, The Producers started its life as a Mel Brooks movie with only the one music number “Springtime For Hitler.” Now it has half a dozen big showy numbers with lots of little reprises and lesser musical bits.

But hokey rerun-it-againness is what The Producers is all about, as it tells us itself in its opening scene. Max Bialystock (Lane) has just opened and closed, in one night, his most recent play, Funny Boy, a musical version of Hamlet. Before he can go back to romancing elderly women to raise investments for his next play, he receives a visit from accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick). A skittish little frightened squirrel of a man, Leo is both horrified by Bialystock’s con-filled life and intrigued with the flashy life of the Broadway theater scene. It contains, after all, “everything [he’s] ever seen in the movies.” So Bloom eventually decides to partner with Bialystock on an endeavor that Bloom himself half-knowingly suggested. The premise: an assured flop could make its producers more than a hit. After all, if a show makes no money you don’t have to worry about paying back investors and, if you don’t have percentages of the profits to dole out, you can sell far past the physical barriers of 100 percent ownership.

They pick as their bomb Springtime for Hitler, a play by the Naziphile Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). They get director Roger DeBris (Gary Beach), whose every instinct is to add ham to cheese, to “Keep It Gay” as his song explains. The only real talent involved in the show is Ulla (Uma Thurman), the Swedish secretary who wants to act and for whom Bialystock and Bloom both have large quantities of lust (with a little puppy-dog affection mixed in on Bloom’s part).

All of the elements for a crappy play are on hand but, horror of horrors, the audience that is at first disgusted is eventually delighted with the camp, especially when the flamingly fey Roger is forced to step in as Hilter, making him the prancingest dictator ever.

I wanted to like The Producers, jolly and broad as it is. But sadly “wanting to like” did not translate into actually liking it. At best I had a sort of aw-shucks affection for the film — after all, it’s hard to actively dislike something that’s trying so hard.

The money-shot of The Producers is still the actual opening scene of Springtime For Hitler (complete with Mel Brooks saying “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party”) and the horrified reaction shot of the crowd. But while the Nazi-loving musical still offers us all the very worst that musical theater has to offer so, now, does the rest of the movie, making the mockery either amazingly meta or sadly fangless.

Aside from the “ahhhs” of seeing the Busby-Berkeley-style gaily-goosestepping Gestapo, The Producers has the feel of flat champagne — no bubbles and too much bloat. Lane and Broderick have obvious affection for their parts but don’t seem energized by them; they kvetch with operatic vigor, soaring to melodramatic heights, but lack the bit of spark that would make this aging Borsht belt shtick shine.

C-