When numerous incarnations of a famous story are created, it's easy for one version to get lost in the shuffle. For Mel Brooks's mega-phenomenon, The Producers, it appeared that the musical film version is that unfortunate casualty. Originally a film made in 1968 and starring Zero Mostel, The Producers was later adapted into an incredibly successful Broadway musical. For the film version based on his play, Brooks elected to assign Susan Stroman the directing job, just as he had done on stage. What was most often criticised about the film was that all Stroman had done was film the stage show. Yet, that is more a compliment than a complaint. The Broadway version of The Producers is one of the funniest and most refreshing stage musicals to date, bringing together some excellent and memorable songs, entertaining dance numbers and some witty lines that only Mel Brooks could write. The film version keeps all of the wonderfulness intact and thus the film succeeds incredibly well in producing not only the best film musical of this still young decade, but also one of the best musicals ever put to celluloid.
The style which Stroman and Brooks chose to make The Producers suits it perfectly, as it pays homage to the classical musicals like Singin' in the Rain and My Fair Lady, instead of opting for the quick-cutting MTV approach that musicals have adopted in recent years. Thus, the result is a bright and breezily shot musical utilising the old school lighting techniques and most of all Stroman's choreography to great effect. From old lady walkers in "Along Came Bialy" to the absolutely bombastic campy style of "Springtime for Hitler", the dance steps are superb and the viewer is able to watch every step without interruption. Each number is set up perfectly, not running too long and providing the film's most entertaining moments. Of course, the written dialogue provided by Mel Brooks and collaborator Thomas Meehan is as sharp and witty as what was seen in the original film. The actors say their lines with the most perfect comedic timing imaginable, naturally causing fits of laughter in the viewer.The humour ranges from slapstick routines to both obscure and well-known Broadway reference. Littered throughout, as well, are background gags like the posters seen in Max's office and an extra doing something silly behind the main actors. Naturally, the satire is also kept firmly in place, with Brooks and Stroman going after their usual targets: critical theatre patrons, boring accountants and of course, Adolf Hitler and his "hotsy, totsy Nazis."
The material and music is already perfect, so of course, they don't change it. However, critics have complained that the actors are over-the-top on the screen, thus producing a lot of mugging. Yet, that is the only possible way to perform Mel Brooks material as its scripts were practically made for mugging for the camera's attention. Naturally, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are the stars of the film and hence they deserve the bulk of the credit for bringing their jokes completely to life. Nathan Lane is tremendous, invoking exactly what got him the Tony Award for the performance. Even though, Max is a slightly vindictive fellow, the audience can't help but feel sorry for him. Matthew Broderick also brings a certain heart to the film as Leo Bloom, going for a different approach than Gene Wilder. His Leo is a poor schmuck, who despite his panic attacks, views the world slightly more optimistically, with eyes and expressions full of wonderment and desire. Putting Lane and Broderick together was a stroke of genius on the part of Mel Brooks, as they both shine and as shown in one of the final songs, "Til Him", their chemistry is one of a kind. Somewhere out there, Zero Mostel is smiling down and blessing these two actors.
Broderick also has plenty of romantic chemistry with Uma Thurman, who sports a very funny mock Swedish accent in a part where she is able to stretch her pipes incredibly well. She also hits the dance floor in ways not even seen in her famous scene in Pulp Fiction with "When You Got Got It, Flaunt It", one of the film's best musical numbers. Showing that when given the right material, he can give out a gem of a performance, Will Ferrell's portrayal of Franz Liebkind is far and away his work to date. Ever the improviser, Ferrell intelligently respects the Brooks material, while still giving the crazy kraut his own feel. Ferrell appears to be more comfortable in this role than he ever was playing an anchorman and a race-car driver. He may have failed there, but in The Producers, he succeeds. Finally, returning from the Broadway production are Gary Beach and Roger Bart, who while they make their character completely flamboyant to the max, they still prove to be respectable and embody their characters perfectly. When Beach takes the stage in his Hitler get-up for the film's incredible ten-minute triumph known as "Springtime for Hitler", he especially shines giving the right ounce of offensiveness and, as De Bris promises earlier in the film, keeps it gay.
The most under-appreciated film of the new millennium, Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks add the right amount of hilarity, heart, silliness and bad taste to make a film as classy as the works of Gene Kelly or Busby Berkeley. Although, I'm sure Berkeley never had his dancers take the form of a Swazitka.
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