Reel Opinions

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Producers (2005)

How wonderful it is to see a movie musical like The Producers hit the screen. After the overblown spectacle of Phantom of the Opera and the half-baked sappy melodrama of Rent, here is a film that is so full of energy, life, and just plain joy that I have to question if the critics who panned this film even watched the same movie as I. Then again, your enjoyment of The Producers may have a lot to do with your familiarity of the source material. As a huge fan of both the original 1968 film and the Broadway musical that inspired this version, I simply couldn't be happier. The stage production's original director, Susan Stroman, makes her film directing debut and has brought as faithful an adaptation of the play as one could hope for. In fact, there were times that I almost felt like I was watching a much bigger version of the original stage show. Whether or not this bothers you is a personal call. All I know is that it didn't bother me that much, and I haven't laughed this much or this hard all the way through a comedy in quite a while.

For you unfortunate souls who have never experienced The Producers, the story centers around Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), the once celebrated "King of Broadway" who, after producing a series of flops, is now reduced to ridicule from his peers and forced to make love with numerous wealthy and horny old ladies for money in order to back his shows. After his latest flop, a musical version of Hamlet called "Funny Boy", closes on its own opening night, Max is more distraught than ever before. Fate steps in when meek and hysterics-prone accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), enters into his life. While going over Max's account books, Leo comes upon an idea - A Producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit by raising more money then he needs to back the show, and then once the show immediately closes, pocket the unused money. Max wants the money, and Leo wants to leave behind the dull accounting life behind and live the good life. The two decide to go into business together and begin their search for the worst play ever written.

Their search ends when they come across a script entitled "Springtime for Hitler" - a musical written by a deranged Nazi sympathizer named Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell) that chronicles the life of Hitler through song and dance. Determined to see "Springtime" fail, Max and Leo hire the worst director alive in the form of a flamboyantly gay cross dresser named Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), and a Swedish female lead that can barely speak English named Ulla (Uma Thurman), who also acts as Max and Leo's secretary. Even with all their preparing and planning of the perfect flop, the final outcome is one that neither of the two friends could have ever foreseen when the production is misunderstood by critics and audiences as being satirical and is dubbed a smash.

Much like the film version of Rent, The Producers brings back many of the same talent that made the show a hit on the stage. Aside from the two starring leads of Lane and Broderick, Gary Beach also returns, as does Roger Bart as Roger De Bris' equally flamboyant partner and assistant, Carmen Ghia. Unlike Rent, however, The Producers transfers successfully to the big screen because it actually has a story to tell, real characters, things that resemble conflicts, and above all, enjoyable songs. Most importantly, however, the film is funny from the first scene to the last. The returning stars are obvious veterans, and getting to see their performances on the screen after seeing them on Broadway a couple years ago was a huge thrill. I thought maybe something would be missing, or maybe it wouldn't be the same, but I still laughed as hard as I did when I was sitting in the orchestra pit area of the St. James Theatre. Lane and Broderick have such a natural opposite chemistry with each other that it's almost impossible to describe, but it works so well. Their lengthy introduction scene where they meet each other for the first time, and the scheme is initially set into motion is a wonder to watch as the two actors play off of each other and the delivery of their lines. Gary Beach and Roger Bart are wonderful as well in roles that could have come across as tired and cliched, but instead light up just about every scene they're in. Sure, Roger Bart is kind of in danger of getting typecasted as flamboyant gays (he also played one in 2004's Stepford Wives remake), but I can't deny he got some of the biggest laughs from me.

Of the two main actors new to the roles, both Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell shine in their own way. Thurman has an appropriately sexy/clueless atmosphere to her performance, and when she belts out her character's signature number "When You Got It, Flaunt It", she shows quite a bit of range in her singing. I also liked that the character of Ulla has been fleshed out more in both the stage production and this film than in the original movie. She seems more like a real character instead of a running gag which is mostly what she was used as in the 1968 version. And Ferrell as "Springtime's" playwright is a welcome sight after his last few disappointing films such as the mediocre Bewitched and the awful Kicking and Screaming. He takes on the insane character with full force, fully embracing every verbal, physical, and mental quirk of the character with often hilarious effect. Sure, he doesn't come close to capturing the glory of Kenneth Mars' take on the character in the 68 film, but he still gives it his all.

So, what of the film itself? Well, as mentioned earlier, the film is an almost slavishly faithful to the original stage production. While many of the scenes were shot on location in New York, there are many others that are quite obviously a soundstage and make no effort to hide their "staged" appearance. Normally, this would bother me, but this time, I let it fly because it seemed to fit in with the tone that the movie was trying to capture. And that tone is the great Hollywood musicals of the 40s and 50s. There are a number of scenes that are staged with a flair for the nostalgic including Leo Bloom's fantasy sequence "I Want to Be a Producer", Max's lament as he looks back on his life in "Betrayal", and a particularly charming scene where Leo and Ulla discover they have strong feelings for one another. The choreography, the staging, and the overall look is appropriately old fashioned, though there is of course the usual Mel Brooks touch of parody. I don't think the great Hollywood musicals of yesterday ever even dreamed of a number like "Keep it Gay"...The jokes fly fast and furious, both in the lyrics, the visuals, and sometimes even the staging of the sequences themselves. (A chorus line of old ladies using walkers.) That's what makes The Producers such a joy to watch. There's literally something to smile or laugh about in nearly every frame, and it continues right through to the ending credits. This is definitely one movie where you want to sit through the credits, or risk missing a very funny parody of pop ballads performed by Will Ferrell, and an additional scene that features a minute long closing number performed by the entire cast after the credits are completely finished.

The Producers is a movie that will truly divide film fans I believe. Those who completely buy into the nostalgic musical spirit and sheer insanity of it all will love it, and there are those who will find it overly cute and cheesy. It's all in how you look at it, I guess. I loved every minute of it, and look forward to adding the film to my collection. Personally, I think this is the most fun I've had watching a movie in quite a while, and definitely the most fun I've had watching a movie musical since 2002's Chicago. The Producers is a great remedy to how overblown and serious some recent film musicals have become. It is 2 hours and 15 minutes of total check your brain at the door fun. If that's the kind of movie you're in the mood for, you can't do much better than this.

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