Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick do it again. Reprising their now-fabled roles from one of the all-time greatest Broadway smash hits, Lane, as the has-been Broadway producer Max Bialystock and Broderick, as the not quite totally innocent hack accountant Leo Bloom, almost succeed, amidst much singing and hoofing and outrageous sets and punch lines, in pulling a fast one. In the tradition of Auntie Mame, The Producers is the film version of a successful Broadway musical, based on a popular Hollywood movie. As in Mel Brooks’ original 1968 film of The Producers, where Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) schemed with Leo Bloom (the great Gene Wilder), Lane and Broderick contrive to shake down investors for easy money – raise cash far in excess of cost, produce a sure-fire flop, a play that will open and close before the end of the first act, and pocket the difference.
The singing, dancing, miming show-biz cons succeed in pulling a fast one over, mostly on themselves (as it turns out), with the help of the world’s worst Nazi-stereotype weekend playwright Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell), the retro Swedish blond bombshell model/actress/secretary Ulla Something-Or-Other (Uma Thurman), the world’s tackiest piss-elegant drag-queen stage director, Roger de Bris (Gary Beach), his live-in 1950s Hollywood evil homosexual queen cliche assistant, Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), and a cast of hundreds. Counted as but one among the many gems of this film version–the principles are leading talents (they sing, they dance, they act, they have perfect comedic timing), their love of these roles and affection for each other has only grown since Broadway days, and it shows, from opening scene to grand finale.
What was the guaranteed absolute worst musical idea in the 1960s? Answer: Springtime for Hitler. Brooks’ entire film turned on this one-joke punch line. But, instead of folding instantly, Bialystock’s bombshell becomes successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, by the time The Producers was recycled as a musical (and it seems to have promulgated the recent trend to redraft popular films, novels, and pop artists’ song lists as musical plays), the joke was a very old dog. In the musical version, Springtime for Hitler opens half way through the film and the entire production is presented as an over-the-top show-within-a-show.
The film version of the musical is filled with lovingly sly, coy, and in-your-face moments of chutzpah. A battalion of little old ladies in blue tap-dance in a precision zimmer frame drill team in Central Park. Hitler goose-steps and prances and minces. Chorus girls descend from risers singing and dancing, gowns and head gear and props as if stolen from a Ken Russell film and choreographed by Busby Berkeley on smack. And the show-stopping, gut-splitting numbers just keep on coming.
The cast and crew are aware this is a film for the ages. Lane pays tribute to Mostel, becoming preoccupied with his Mostel comb-over hair-do on more than one occasion. In another hamming aside to the camera, Lane offers up his Lou Abbot. The only fake accent worse than Ferrell’s pseudo neo-nazi shtick is Uma Thurman’s all-talking and all-singing Anita Ekberg clone. Will Ferrell’s penchant for adolescent American humor works well, transforming Liebkind into a complete cartoon character, a catalog of the all-American ideal "bad German" stereotype. (This, in itself, is somewhat painful to observe, but for other reasons.) Gary Beach’s Roger de Bris (What would you get if Liberace married Napoleon and dressed the baby up as Hitler?) is the coup de grace. Hitler and lesser criminals (such as Bialystock and Bloom) alike can best be tolerated when turned inside out (like daddy turning on the lights and dispelling the monsters under the bed). Add liberal, self-conscious doses of 1960s Hollywood light romantic comedy (think Doris Day and Rock Hudson played in drag), and voila: the perfect balance between silliness and levity which is The Producers.