Flop sweat from Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick? Impossible! Aren’t these two the Laurel and Hardy, the Oscar and Felix, the Lewis and Clark of Broadway? Yet here they are in The Producers, re-creating the signature roles with which the pair first dazzled New York City almost five years ago in the award-laden musical, and I could swear the boys look damp with desperation. They strain, they bellow, they all but resort to spit takes for laughs. Is it my imagination, or can I see beads of anxious shvitzing on their cheeks as they go through the motions of their polished buddy act?
Tricky thing, the art of moving from one medium to another. In 2001, Mel Brooks adapted his own 1968 comedy classic (starring Zero Mostel of blessed memory and Gene Wilder) into a live song-and-dance circus, and now here’s a movie of the musical of the movie that, like a game of telephone, doesn’t convey any of Brooks’ innate breezy mania. The broad busyness with which he and director Susan Stroman made the original transition from screen to stage looks positively garish now crammed back onto film. Gestures that were designed to play to an upper balcony jammed with tourists look overeager on the big screen, and despite the inclusion of a few new outdoor location shots, the ripped-from-the-stage aesthetic induces claustrophobia. Worst of all, stuff that’s built for huge laughs and applause dies a thousand deaths when concluded in silence without the response of a live audience. A director at ease with the movie medium might have known how to overcome this. But the unceasingly inventive choreographer and stage maestra Stroman, so wizardly at putting on a really boffo live show, flounders as a newbie unfamiliar with the medium.
Once again, Lane plays schlock impresario Max Bialystock and Broderick is the nebbish accountant Leo Bloom, who shows up to check the books and ends up signing on as a producing partner in what he calculates ought to be a no-fail way to pocket investors’ money from a surefire flop. The ”mother lode” of a bad script the two unearth is Springtime for Hitler, an affectionate singing-and-dancing ode to the fascist despot. The playwright, Franz Liebkind, is a nuts Nazi; Roger DeBris, the terrible director they pick for the job, is a swishing queen whose showbiz motto is ”Keep it gay!” And DeBris’ ”common-law assistant,” Carmen Ghia, is an officious hysteric.
The production features many from the original Broadway cast, including Gary Beach as Roger and Desperate Housewives’ Roger Bart as Carmen. But original is not necessarily better. Those purists who tut-tut the choice of Will Ferrell as Liebkind, or Uma Thurman as the cartoonishly breathy Swedish bombshell Ulla, a role made memorable on stage by Cady Huffman, might learn a thing or two from their ease under the camera lights. (Uma/Ulla, by the way, is a peach.)
The accountant in Bloom would probably approve of the new Producers: It’s an efficient extension of a popular brand. In theory, what’s not to like? In reality, the whole schmear.