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Unscrupulous Broadway producer Max Bialystock discovers he can make more money with a flop than a hit. So with bumbling accountant Leo Bloom, he sets about finding the worst play in history, planning to pocket all the money the moment it closes. Luckily he finds "Springtime for Hitler" - the most tasteless musical ever created. But even with a hopeless cast he finds himself with an unexpected hit on his hands. What's a dishonest man to do to make a little cash?
The remake roundabout makes a convoluted stop with a film remake of a stage musical of a film. Broadway director Susan Stroman makes her movie debut with this adaptation of the play that made her name. She feels far too attached to the stage conventions of the piece. Instead of making the most of what film can offer her, she is intent on keeping everything as close to the theatre version as possible. So it never feels like the world of the play exists; there are too many sets that are clearly built on soundstages. The costumes are gaudy stage-friendly confections and the performances tend towards the stagy. So it often feels as though you'd be better off nipping down to the West End instead of watching it on the big screen. Ms Stroman has a strong handle on the song-and-dance numbers that are shot with real verve. There's a kind of Busby Berkeley charm to them that relates to the 1950s setting of the movie. There are huge chorus numbers that rely on precise choreography and amazingly clever sets. The number in an accountancy firm is particularly nicely arranged, with the walls opening up to reveal an entire troupe of dancing girls. There is also a great sequence featuring dozens of dancers dressed as little old ladies, doing a tap dance complete with zimmer frames. The "Springtime for Hitler" sequences are a special joy. However, by making the imaginary musical look so attractive, it makes the behind the scenes shenanigans far less appealing. Plus it is over two hours long, making it feel as though it's dragging at times. Mel Brooks even cameos as the voices of Hilda the pigeon and Tom the cat. So it's a faithful but not necessarily essential addition to the film musical canon.
The screenplay by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan relies on a traditional theatre musical narrative. It uses songs to illustrate, but not necessarily advance the story. Many of them are employed to show the attitudes and beliefs of the protagonists and thus build the characterisation that is otherwise missing. In many terms the characters are stock musical theatre roles, without much to flesh them out. Everyone feels like a stereotype; the nervy Leo, greedy Max, ditzy Ulla, sex crazed grannies and screamingly camp, cross-dressing gay theatre folk. But each role has its own internal consistency, so just about hangs together. However, the film is helped inordinately by the sharp script. It's essentially a grab-bag of jokes, but the hit ratio is surprisingly high. Most of the comedy is classic Mel Brooks' fare, which means that it may not be highbrow or clever, but it is generally funny, even if it relies on innuendo an awful lot. The majority of it depends on the delivery and with consummate scene stealer Nathan Lane at the helm it works (mainly because of his splendid timing). Who else could get away with the line "Do I smell the revolting stench of self esteem?!?"
Nathan Lane is an actor equally well suited to film and stage work. He knows how to work the camera in the same way as a live audience and how to adjust his performance according to the medium in which he is working. He has a tendency towards theatricality anyway, but though his version of Max Bialystock is fabulously over the top, it isn't too big for the screen. His comic timing is wonderful as always, knowing just how to hold a pause for effect. He's very skilled at slapstick, as you'd expect from a man with such a long career in musical theatre. Though he may not have the strongest voice in the world, he can certainly get his message across. He also has a nice snap to his dance steps that keeps him a step ahead of his co-stars.
I've got to say I'm not convinced by Matthew Broderick's performance as Leo Bloom. He may have played the character on Broadway to great acclaim but he hasn't scaled down his performance sufficiently for it so be suitable for the screen. The problem is that his tics are too big to convince and they jar with his otherwise bland characterisation. I'm not sure if it's a character choice, but his yammering and boggle-eyed staring become deeply irritating. He's a competent dancer and an adequate singer, but can't compete with Lane and he lacks the necessary chemistry with Ulla.
Uma Thurman acquits herself well as Scandinavian temptress Ulla. She's a spirited sex kitten with an accent you could cut with a knife; she certainly has the physical va-va-voom to attract attention. However, she is not as gifted as her co-stars when it comes to musical theatre skills. At times you can see her counting her dance steps under her breath. Will Ferrell is something of a surprise as lunatic German writer Franz Liebkind. His performance owes a great deal to Peter Sellers' turn as Dr Strangelove. It's a combination of insanity, excessive energy and shouty Cherman accent. He has a surprisingly good singing voice and is able in terms of simple dance routines. But his manic persona is ideally suited to the slapstick requirements of the script.
The songs throughout are old-fashioned music hall and music theatre number in many ways. They generally feature full orchestral backing and choral interludes in glorious stereo. You know the direction it's going in from the big brassy intro "Opening Night". It's nice to see someone willing to splash out on a traditional big musical theatre sound. There's nothing subtle about the tunes or the lyrics (you only have to look at "Keep It Gay" for proof), but they are joyously unapologetic and belted out with real energy by the cast. There are plenty of toe-tapping numbers that will stay in your head for days after seeing the film, from "I Want to Be a Producer" and "Guten Tag Hop Clop" to "Springtime for Hitler".
There are some really nice aspects to the production design. The breakaway set for "I Want to Be a Producer" is beautifully designed and moves with real fluidity. Similarly the sets and costumes for "Springtime for Hitler" are splendidly realised. However, my favourite bit of technical jiggery-pokery is Franz Liebkind's animatronic pigeons, capable of pigeon coop dancing and the odd Nazi salute. There is a nice attention to detail; from the posters of Max's previous productions ("King Leer", "The Breaking Wind") to the clutter in his office cum apartment.
"The Producers" is a bit of a cinematic odd fish. It is entertaining and features a splendid central performance from consummate ham Nathan Lane. But it would have been nice if director Susan Stroman could have divorced herself more from the stage version of the show and given it a wider and frankly more cinematic scope. It's a very good advert for the West End musical but it rarely feels like more than a filmed version of a stage production. And when compared with Brooks' film original, it doesn't quite have the same comedic snap or glee in controversy. Still, if you like musicals, it's definitely worth a watch.
Enjoyed this film more than i expected, but still prefer the 1968 original. Chris x
fabulous_girl 28.04.2006 17:46
I rated ur review before but though I'd come back and comment now I have seen it,- well most of- I fell asleep- not out of boredom, more drunkenness- I liked what I saw though- got up to just after the opening night of springtime for hitler- i think ferrell is hilarious!!
fabulous_girl 24.04.2006 13:45
Great review, I just checked my blockbuster list and this is what they are sending me next!
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This remake of Mel Brooks' 1968 film features Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles that they originated i...
Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Nathan Lane, Andrea Martin, Matthew Broderick, Gary Beach, Uma Thurman, Roger Bart, Will Ferrell, Debra Monk, Andrea Martin, Robert Bartley, Gary Beach, Roger Bart, Debra Monk, Robert Bartley
Susan Stroman, Susan Stroman
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