ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell
screenplay by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan
directed by Susan Stroman
by Walter Chaw Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is responsible for exactly the kind of garbage that runs for years on the Great White Way, except that for the purposes of The Producers, his plays close in a couple of days, leaving Bialystock constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and at the mercy of a long, horny line of elderly widows and rich spinsters. I don't think old women in pillbox hats renting Nathan Lane by the hour for a few dry humps is particularly funny (or realistic)--but some people, especially those reared on vaudeville, think it's hysterical. When auditor Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) casually mentions that it might actually be more profitable to stage a very expensive flop, Max hatches a plan in which the two will mount the worst stage production in history, thus bilking their investors out of a coupla million. After finding the worst playwright (Will Ferrell), the worst director (Gary Beach), and the worst actress (Ulla (Uma Thurman)), they proceed to stage a musical that celebrates the Third Reich called "Springtime for Hitler". Lo and behold, it's taken as tongue-in-cheek and becomes the talk of the town. You'd call it "irony" except that this eventuality is not at all unexpected--and wasn't even when it happened the first time, in 1968.
But let's give the film the benefit of a doubt that it's self-aware rather than the product of an octogenarian's sense of humour (an octogenarian who, for his handful of masterpieces (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety) has seldom had as his strength, shall we say, "currency"). If we posit The Producers as a meta flick about the creation of a shockingly-inappropriate play within an inappropriate--in an antiquated way--play/film, then it's fair to wonder whether any of it still works as a satire or if it's so hopelessly dated now that it plays as that most pathetic of creatures: a satire that wrongly thinks not only that it's clever, but also that the things it's satirizing are prime targets. Take, for example, the ridiculously gay theatre director, weeping disconsolately one moment and prancing about the very next--or his assistant, Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), the evil queen archetype with a frigid grimace and turtleneck. What's the object of satire here? The less said about Roger's crew--all dressed like members of the Village People (in the film's one nod to post-1968) save the lesbian, who is, of course, dressed like a lumberjack--the better.
It's not funny, and not because it's shocking, but because it's old--so old, in fact, that it's just, well, pathetic. Almost as pathetic as the chorus line of old biddies with their walkers; almost as old as the jiggling bimbo archetype Ulla (Thurman, embarrassing), or the goose-stepping Nazi with his coop of animatronic pigeons (Ferrell, awful for the third or fourth time this year). You really don't have to look farther than its leads, though, to locate the bottom, with Lane doing his turn in The Birdcage one poorer and Broderick delivering the first performance I've ever seen of his where I did not like him for even a moment. Blame a lot of it on the idea that the best way to adapt a stage musical for the screen is to not adapt it at all, but simply point a camera at it and let 'er rip. It's too much like witnessing a restaging of Gentleman's Agreement as a musical with no significant updates. The Producers is ridiculous and realized in a manner that mainly highlights the gigantic gulf separating seeing something live on stage with people of the same economic and social standing as you in a privileged environment, and seeing something on screen, in a movie theatre, in the dark, alone with that dawning horror of self-recognition and budding critical facility that makes liking this kind of ossified shit harder and harder to do. Originally published: December 25, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Universal brings The Producers to DVD in competing widescreen and pan-and-scan editions; we received the former for review. The 2.44:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is so clear and vibrant as to deflect the inadequacies of Susan Stroman's stagey set-ups. Alas, that same digital clarity only accents the blandness of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix: the audio rarely soars, although there's nothing empirically wrong with it. Extras include a (transparently) scripted feature-length yakker from director Stroman that you would think wouldn't resort to narration as often as it does, given that our commentator came prepared. Stroman raises a few interesting points along the way, like the fact that Uma Thurman picked up the dance steps fairly quickly thanks to her martial arts training on Kill Bill, but her defaults to plot synopsis--coupled with the unsettling lack of spontaneity in even her most offhand remarks--pre-empt any chance for redemption of The Producers proper. Also on board are six deleted scenes totalling 20 minutes, presented in anamorphic widescreen with 2.0 stereo sound. Fans of the stage show will want to check these out, as most of them are deleted or extended musical numbers, including Max Bialystock's first song "King of Broadway." Of note is a peculiarly racist verse elided from "I Wanna Be a Producer": when you have a black number-cruncher say "Oh I debits all the mornin'," you're not paying homage to "Show Boat", you're raising the question of how someone who speaks in the "Negro" vernacular wound up working alongside tighty-whitey Leo Bloom in a Manhattan accounting firm.
Next comes "Outtakes" (15 mins.), a.k.a. the World's Longest Gag Reel; that being said, some of these gaffes (particularly the various miscues that turn Stroman's Busby Berkeley choreography into Spinal Tap slapstick) are funnier than anything in the finished film, and the chemistry between Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick is electric here. Lastly, in iris'ing in on just one set-piece, "Analysis of a Scene: I Wanna Be a Producer" (16 mins.) manages to paint a more detailed picture of the production than a standard EPK would. It almost doesn't recover from Mel Brooks's hyperbolic opening statement that "['I Wanna Be a Producer'] may be the single best production number ever done for movies," but soon enough Mark Friedberg of The Life Aquatic fame is showing off the Walker Evans photos that inspired his set designs, lending a much-needed dash of credibility to the hype. Tellingly, Stroman is caught off-guard by the versatility of camera cranes--she's really out of her element on a film set. Cuing up on startup, a reel promoting Munich, Focus Features, NBC Thursdays, The Producers soundtrack CD, and Over the Hedge rounds out the disc. Originally published: May 29, 2006.
135 minutes; PG-13; 2.44:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Universal