Movie-turned-musical-turned-movie-musical fails to produce solid entertainment
Ferris Bueller: The Vaudeville Years
Directed by Susan Stroman
Cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell
The Producers began life as a film by Mel Brooks. Shortly after Hairspray (a film by John Waters) became a big hit as a Broadway musical, The Producers was tapped as the next movie-to-stage surefire smash (proving that Hollywood isn't the only industry incapable of coming up with original ideas). The odd twist in the tale comes now that The Producers has been made back into a movie.
As a Broadway spectacle, The Producers was fairly indicative of the New York theater scene's current trajectory--namely in the direction of broadly popular, instantly familiar name brands that can be marketed to a wide range of indiscriminate older tourists. The Lion King? Beauty and the Beast? Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? The Color Purple? All became certified Broadway hits after their cinematic outings. What's next, The Wedding Singer? The Pink Panther? Weekend at Bernie's: The Musical? ... Actually, yes. All of those are being developed as we speak.
The Producers comes back to the silver screen in, more or less, its undiluted Broadway form. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who originated their roles in the sellout Broadway run, are back. Lane is Max Bialystock, a low-rent Broadway producer/con man who specializes in stealing his seed money from little old ladies whom he seduces. Broderick is Leo Bloom, a neurotic accountant brought in to untangle Max's much-tangled finances.
Digging though the books of Max's latest flop, Leo casually notices that you could almost make more on a failure than you could on a hit. Desperate for some dough, Max talks Leo into a major scheme: The duo will raise several million dollars selling overinflated shares of a new show. When it flops, they will not be required to pay back any of the cash. All they need to do is find a show that is guaranteed to close after one date. They find it in the patently offensive “neo-Nazi musical” Springtime for Hitler.
Like most musicals, The Producers takes a while to get up some steam. The opening meeting between Max and Leo is taken almost word-for-word from Mel Brooks' 1968 screenplay. The problem is that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are no Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (the stars of Brooks' nonmusical original). The opening sequence between Mostel and Wilder was a virtual master class on comic timing. Lane and Broderick don't even come close. First-time filmmaker Susan Stroman (who directed the Broadway version) doesn't seem to know the difference between stage acting and film acting. She has her cast mugging like silent film actors and shouting lines like they're trying to reach the cheap seats. Supporting players--like Will Ferrell as a nutty Nazi playwright and Uma Thurman as a jiggly Swedish secretary--do marginally better, though, stealing considerable laughs from the lead actors.
After about 20 minutes, The Producers does manage to find a little steadier footing. Once the film mounts a few ridiculous, Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers (such as Broderick's showy “I Wanna be a Producer” routine), it reaches a certain over-the-top charm. Stroman is clearly not trying to do anything innovative here. At her best, she recreates the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood movie musical that was in vogue when things like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were step-turn-kicking their way onto movie screens.
The Producers does entertain, but only in fits and starts. There are a few hummable tunes and some broadly funny, slapstick-heavy jokes. (It's still Mel Brooks, after all.) But the film is overly long, overly silly and still hopelessly stagebound. Still, it should be enough to tide you over until Legally Blonde: The Musical hits Broadway. (Sadly, that's not a joke.)