Mel Brooks first introduced The Producers in 1968 to respectable box office and respectful critical response; he won an Oscar for his original screenplay, and Gene Wilder was nominated for his performance as the nerd-turned-shyster Leo Bloom. The film slowly ascended to cult status through the years, worming its way onto all-time comedy lists (No. 11 on the American Film Institute's tally) and the Library of Congress' catalog of culturally significant films. That would have been enough for most people.
But sometime just before the turn of the millennium, the bawdy, brilliant Brooks showed up at the home of Broadway choreographer-turned-director Susan Stroman (Contact). He walked right in, singing one of the simple-but-witty songs he'd already penned for a stage version of The Producers. Fast forward to the creation of the hottest Broadway duo in years (stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) and a subsequent slew of Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and one could be forgiven for assuming that that would be enough for most people.
Well, Mel Brooks has never been "most people." And so back to the big screen it is for an all-out, over-the-top film version of one of the Great White Way's greatest modern successes. Brooks sees it as largesse; he insists he only wanted to preserve the performances of Lane, Broderick and a good chunk of the larger cast for the millions of fans who never could get a ticket to the history-making show. Spoken like a real Bialystock.
Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane, reprising his Tony-winning takeover of the film role originated by Zero Mostel) has seen better Broadway days. Lately, his shows open and close on the same nights, each one a theatrical disaster in the vein of Funny Boy (a musical retelling of Hamlet) and each one bankrolled by a long line of walker-wielding grannies that Bialystock romances/bilks. Enter Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick), a mousy accountant sent to review Bialystock's books; Bloom, it seems, has always harbored a secret desire to be a producer himself. In his eggheady, offhand way, Bloom innocently observes that ' through a little creative accounting ' a producer could potentially make more on an intentional flop than on an outright success. Bialystock suddenly can't see for all the dollar signs in his eyes, and the rest is hysterical history.
Bialystock and Bloom set out to find the worst play ever written and hit the mother lode in Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, written by former-Nazi-turned-pigeon-keeping-playwright Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). Throw in fabulously fey director Roger De Bris (Tony-winner Gary Beach), Swedish bombshell Ulla (Uma Thurman) and tried-and-true lines like "Don't be stupid/Be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi party," and you've got an instant classic on your hands. (The Producers, not Springtime for Hitler.) But that classic belongs on stage and not really on film.
Everything that made the show such a stage phenomenon is on the screen. It's also what makes the movie version a little hard to watch. Lane is still projecting for all he's worth in the hopes of reaching that back row of a cavernous New York theater, so his performance is too broad. It comes off campy. Broderick's sniveling, sneaky Bloom would be wondrous work from a distance; up close, he just looks like a rip-off of Mike Myers' Phillip-the-hyperactive-kid skit from Saturday Night Live. Beach makes the transition most successfully, but perhaps that's only because he's already playing the show/film's two most outrageous characters (De Bris and Der Fuhrer) so whatever he does seems spot-on. A sufficiently silly, sleek Thurman and a loony Ferrell are surprisingly welcome additions in their supporting roles. Both sing and dance (although Thurman occasionally has a double), and neither sticks out like a sore thumb.
If the main performances make audiences long for a live show, though, the big production numbers just bring home that desire. Director Stroman really struts her stuff. Broderick's charming Walter Mitty-esque "I Wanna Be a Producer" and Lane's bombastic jailhouse lament "Betrayed" are sharply staged and would bring any respectable Broadway audience to its feet. They are the highlights of the film, and they work because they play not like a film, but like a filmed version of a live production. They are the only times that the movie really sings.
Still, the heart of Brooks' outrageous humor survives. The idea of a frivolous musical celebrating one of the twentieth century's greatest monsters is still as perversely funny as it ever was. Don't ask why; it just is. And the subtle, sly skewering of the theater business still floats just beneath the surface. But the film's sweetest gesture gives itself away; alternative Broadway Bialystocks (Brad Oscar, Richard Kind) are given bit parts in the film, a sentimental nod to this version's true home: the stage.