Reviewed by David Spencer
My feelings about The Producers as a stage musical are well documented in these cyber-pages, and it is by now such a fixture that I'm going to assume most readers know the particulars of its plot, origins, authorship, etc. For those who need more context, go to my opening week review; you'll have all the data you require. For the rest of you: read on.
This will be a short and bittersweet postmortem, now that the event of the movie's holiday opening has given way to a middling box office business and a certain fast escape to DVD shelf-life, but I have to say, I found most of the negative reviews grossly mean and unwarranted...while I found most of the positive reviews to be well-intentioned but also blindered by affection for the material. The bottom line truth about the movie -- if you're being (relatively) objective and fair -- lies right in the middle.
It has to do with something Susan Stroman said about wanting the film to evoke early movie musicals, specifically those of the 30s and 40s. In addition to the shameless staginess of them -- borne of a more brazen performance style that was friendlier to the notion of breaking into song (natural in a poetic medium like theatre, harder to justify in a reportorial and literalizing medium like film) -- there was also, in book scenes, what a colleague of mine refered to as "stasis" in the camera work. Think, oh, of a Marx Brothers film. The way you captured their antics was mostly to aim the camera and stay out of their way. Doing that today is a little like paying conscious homage to artlessness -- it's almost a non-style -- but on the other hand, it's a specific choice nonetheless, and if you're hip to what Ms. Stroman's intention is through (a) recognition or (b) having read about it (rather like depending upon a footnote for clarity, but all right, let's give her the leeway), it's perfectly legitimate, as far as it goes. In fact, in certain scenes (those set in Max Bialystock's office especially) it works rather well, or can for those who embrace the deliberate crudeness of it. By that measuring stick, about half the movie is on the money.
The problem is, that style, in its era, reflected the writing and sensibility of its era. And often that style was deceptive: book-score integration was much less sophisticated then, and it was far easier to make cuts in both to bring a film's length down to size and tighten its pacing. For all that The Producers onstage is an homage to old fashioned musical comedy, it is still a product of contemporary thinking. It's a fairly tight piece of material to begin with. And it's also a fairly long piece of material.
And stage pacing is not film pacing.
That dichotomy, more than anything else, is what I think hampers the film, when it is hampered. It's not the staginess that's as objectionable as the staginess wearing out its welcome scene after scene, especially in enclosed, claustrophobic environments (Roger de Bris' town house living room suite, for example). It isn't the close-ups of broad comedy mugging (the target of many brickbats) so much as that the camera has little else to do but move in for a close-up. And with the acting style necessarily big, the film traps the director in her concept. And traps the film as well.
By contrast, take the glorious silly movie Mouse Hunt, scripted by Adam Rifkin. For all intents and purposes, it is a live action cartoon, and an escalating broad farce as two brothers unintentionally destroy a valuable house in fervent and futile pursuit of a mouse. Nathan Lane's antics are every bit as overblown here as in The Producers; and Lee Evans (who would be Lane's Leo when The Producers opened in London) is just as manic an opposite as Matthew Broderick. But director Gore Verbinski always makes the camera complicit in the storytelling, he uses a cut like a punch line. It's not that there are too many or too few close-ups -- it's that they mean something when they happen. And there is always atmosphere of place.
For all that one might mount an apples and oranges rebuttal to the comparison, I don't think the films exist in separate comedy universes -- the difference is that Mouse Hunt has a handle on excess, letting content dictate style...and the musical Producers doesn't, trying to impose style upon a content that resists it.
I feel rather similarly about Universal Studios' imposition of stars in supporting roles: Will Ferrell is not an improvement over any of the Broadway Franzes...and while Uma Thurman's Ulla is charming enough, and can carry a tune (if not altogether prettily), she hasn't the genuine pizzazz of an authentic musical theatre trouper -- and in a film whose dedicated mission is celebrating stage-octane Broadway musical comedy styles, it seems yet another dichotomy not to have green-lit at least that consistency.
Maybe the musical Producers movie will be somewhat better on DVD, on a smaller screen that's less in your face. Not many remember this, but the original Producers movie, albeit a much better film, suffered from a somewhat similar too-bigness, and it did only middling box-office biz; it was its rediscovery on television, and later on home video, that made it a world-renowned classic.
We can but see. And hope...
Conversely, and perversely, the Original Soundtrack Album on the Columbia label (same as the original cast album) only ups the ante on one's disappointment in the film, because the album is a rip-roaringly good one, especially with the exuberantly played expanded orchestrations of Douglas Besterman, riffing on his originals and on the arrangements of "music supervisor" Glen Kelly (who is, as the fellow who devised harmonies, accompaniment figures and the like, to all intents and purposes, Mel Brooks's co-composer). Reflecting the film, it omits "Where Did We Go Right?"; and Max’Äôs first number, "The King of Broadway," filmed but cut, is featured as a bonus track. New end-title numbers, "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway" and an insanely sincere-sounding pop-cover version of "Guten Tag Hop Clop" (sung by Will Ferrell) make for an amusing coda. Thurman and Ferrell, in their show-context tracks, pretty accurately project the lesser-than-the-originals octane preserved on film; but if you allow points for exuberance, they're more than tol'able. Not unheard of, the soundtrack CD being better than the film; but this one is so conspicuously better as to render the film heartbreaking. With only the film as evidence, I wonder if those who never see the show will ever believe the reminiscence of those of us who did...