Broadway magic reproduced
Mel Brooks's "The Producers," starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, was not exactly a great piece of cinema - at times the 1968 film looked like it was shot by a blindfolded cameraman - but it's hysterical just the same. It's a classic example of how a movie can be great without, strictly speaking, being good. But when something is this funny, who wants to speak strictly?
This same principle applies to the musical movie of "The Producers" that's been made from the Broadway show. Susan Stroman, who also directed on stage, does the honors here, which is probably just as well; it's been a long time since Brooks has directed a good movie.
I had not seen the show that Brooks, with his co-writer Thomas Meehan, created for Broadway, and I was skeptical that the film would be any good, at least as a musical. After all, despite its record number of Tonys, can anybody hum a single song - a single refrain - from the show except for "Springtime for Hitler"?
It turns out that the movie works very well as the kind of grand-scale burlesque that Brooks does so well. The best moments from his movies have often been the musical numbers - think of Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein" doing "Puttin' on the Ritz" in top hat and tails.
Repeating their parts from Broadway, Nathan Lane is in the Mostel role as loudmouth impresario Max Bialystock, while Matthew Broderick, reprising Wilder's strangly-voiced tantrums, is the milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom.
These two decide they can make more money with a flop than with a hit - hence the musical "Springtime for Hitler," the brainchild of one Franz Liebkin, played by Will Ferrell in a barking-mad role he was born to play. (This is intended as a compliment.)
Lane and Broderick have performed the show so often that at times they're too polished, too slick. Also, in the first few scenes, they seem to be imitating Mostel and Wilder right down to the mile-wide leers and eye rolls. The leering reaches Olympian proportions when Uma Thurman's curvy Ulla, the Swedish secretary, waltzes in.
But Stroman keeps things lively, and Lane, in particular, comes into his own. He mugs too much for my taste but then again, "The Producers" isn't exactly subtle. It wouldn't be "The Producers" if it were.
It is possible, of course, to take great offense at the very notion of a musical comedy about Hitler. But giving offense - not as a biting satirist but as a slap-happy comic - is Brooks' stock in trade. (In "History of the World Part I" he staged a musical number about the Inquisition.)
For Brooks, the Hitler humor in "The Producers" is a sign of life: He's saying, we survived, you didn't. Grade: B+
• Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references.