movie film review | chris tookey


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  Producers Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
4.57 /10
Max Bialystock - Nathan Lane , Leo Bloom - Matthew Broderick
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Directed by: Susan Stroman
Written by: Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan ; music and lyrics by Mel Brooks

Released: 2005
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 140

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the funniest musical ever.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Some will have you believe otherwise, but here is the best musical to hit the big screen since Chicago. In fact, although Chicago has the catchier and more memorable score, The Producers strikes me as being even more entertaining.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie, the non-musical film on which this is based, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a washed-up Broadway producer whose last show, a musical travesty of Hamlet entitled Funny Boy, opened and closed on the same night.

Soon afterwards, a timid accountant named Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) goes through Bialystock’s books and observes innocently that a producer could make more money with a flop than a success, simply by raising more cash than the show costs and pocketing the rest. As long as the show fails, no investors would expect their money back.

Bialystock quickly enrols this financial wizard as his partner, and raises two million dollars to produce a show that will cost a hundred thousand. As usual, he funds his theatrical endeavour by playing not-too-innocent sex games with little old ladies.

Bialystock and Bloom discover a script they believe to be the worst ever written: “Springtime for Hitler – A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgarten”. This is a glorification of the Fuhrer by Franz Liebkind, a mad German pigeon-fancier (even his birds deliver the nazi salute). Bialystock and Bloom then hire the worst director on earth, a gloriously camp transvestite (Gary Beach). And they wait for the audiences to walk out. Needless to say, on opening night, the results aren’t quite as expected.

The talented choreographer Susan Stroman has a great time opening out the show that she directed so successfully on stage (on Broadway, it won a record 12 Tony awards). Instead of a handful of little old ladies tap-dancing with zimmer frames, we get dozens of them. There are leggier showgirls than Busby Berkeley could have imagined in his wildest dreams. What’s more, they can really dance. The lighting and staging faithfully reproduce the look of big-screen musicals around the year that this is set, 1959.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their Broadway performances and are simply great. Lane, always a gifted comedian and strong singer, gives a dynamic yet subtle performance as a beatifically ruthless and conscience-free producer, deftly undercutting every moment of potential sentimentality with some little hint of anarchy. His piece de resistance comes towards the end, with his torch song Betrayed, in which he re-enacts key moments from the whole movie, played entirely by himself.

Broderick doesn’t play hysterical quite as hilariously as Gene Wilder did, but he does something slightly different – and necessary, in a film that is in part a romantic comedy. He turns Bloom into someone sufficiently attractive for an audience to root for, and a female character to fall in love with.

As Bialystock and Bloom’s blonde and endlessly enthusiastic Swedish secretary, Uma Thurman is y sexy, sings well and proves to be an extremely lithe dancer in the Rita Hayworth tradition. And she has the best legs of any musical leading lady since Cyd Charisse. I realise this is a thoroughly sexist observation, but I’m not going to apologize: it’s a fact, and one of which Ms Thurman is splendidly aware.

A little of Will Ferrell goes a long way with me, and he’s never going to win any awards for nuance or complexity, but he’s okay in the role of Liebkin. It’s not his fault that he’s lumbered with one of the weakest numbers (Der Guten Tag Hop Clop).

Were Lane and Broderick not hanging on to it so securely, the film would be stolen by Gary Beach, deliciously over-the-top as the gay theatre director, and his colourful entourage. Maybe a few critics will find this view of homosexuals offensive, but theatrical gays have never been observed with as much humour or affection as here.

The Producers is not a musical from which you emerge humming the songs. Few numbers rise above pastiche, and one towards the end (You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night) slows the movie down, just as it ought to be accelerating. But every song propels the action forward, all the lyrics are witty, and a couple of the ballads (That Face and Til Him) give the new movie a heart and humanity that the original lacked.

Where this new musical scores over all opposition is that it is uproariously funny. Brooks’s 1968 version won him a screenwriting Oscar and has achieved the status of a classic, but it relied over-heavily on two sequences: the first meeting of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Bialystock’s office, and the sublimely tasteless production number that is Springtime for Hitler. Much of the rest was feeble, and several of the more dated sequences look sexist and homophobic.

The achievement of the 79 year-old Brooks, his veteran co-writer Thomas Meehan (who appears briefly on screen as Bialystock’s attorney) and Stroman is to have dropped the bits that didn’t work and raised the comedy to a consistently elevated standard. The two original high-points are still there, but the rest is hilarious too, far outstripping in quality anything else that Brooks has written in the last 30 years.

My advice is to ignore anyone who tells you – inaccurately – that all Stroman has done is point a camera at the stage show, or that Mostel and Wilder gave more understated performances. Just watch the original and you’ll see that they didn’t.

The earlier film was slated for its vulgarity and over- acting by virtually every leading critic of its time, including the doyenne of British reviewers, Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times.

I have no doubt that the musical will be just as shockingly undervalued by present-day movie critics who are bound to call it over-theatrical, and tend to be snobbish about musicals anyway. Understatement is not what The Producers is about. It’s about old-fashioned fun, deliberate tastelessness, and nostalgia for a kind of show business that has all but vanished, murdered by killjoys, political correctness and, I fear, the critics.

Approach this with an open mind and a sense of humour, and you will discover not only the ultimate Mel Brooks comedy, but one of the great movie musicals of all time.

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