The Producers

(2005) *** 1/2 Pg-13
134 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Susan Stroman. Cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach.

Cross an MGM musical and a Warner Brothers cartoon with the go-for-broke tastelessness of Mel Brooks and you get The Producers, a musical remake of Brooks' 1968 comedy. In fact, the new Producers derives from Brooks' 2000 Tony-winning, Broadway stage musical adaptation of his earlier film (and Brooks, enjoying his septugenarian impresario rebirth, has written ten songs for an upcoming stage musical version of Young Frankenstein).

Most of the original cast of the musical rejoins director Susan Stroman, making her film-directing debut. Nathan Lane plays Max Bialystock, a sleazy Broadway producer with a history of flops (his latest is "Funny Boy: A Musical Version of Hamlet"). When Max's accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) accidentally suggests a scam to make money off of a failure, the two become partners in con "artistry." Gary Beach and Roger Bart reprise their roles as director Roger de Bris and assistant Carmen Ghia—the gross exaggeration of the number "Keep It Gay" will make some howl and others squirm (will the sounds waft through walls to theatres showing Brokeback Mountain? Just a thought...).

Once upon a time, Brooks' more audacious conceit was to mock Nazism. "Springtime for Hitler"—a splashy (and, dammit, catchy) production-number salute to the Fuhrer—still has the power to drop a jaw, but playwright Franz Liebkind, as humorously embodied by new cast member Will Ferrell, has become a harmless, pitiable idiot (singing "Der Guten Tag Hop Clop"). Uma Thurman also jumps on board, as vampy starlet Ulla. Ulla's character goes no deeper than her signature number "When You Got It, Flaunt It," but Thurman perfectly imbues the number with the innocent sexpot appeal it demands (the number's as gleefully retrograde as anything else in the show, but who's counting?).

Stroman keeps the film turned all the way to 11 for the duration of its briskly paced 134 minutes, partly by riding the wave of Lane and Broderick. It's quite possible that no two actors in screen history have prepared their roles as well, which—as you might imagine—is a double-edged sword. Lane is a dynamo of hilarity, his face a special effect (the recapitulating "Betrayed" is a full-bodied, show-stopping showcase). Broderick's camp staginess doesn't translate as well, for some reason, but he is irresistably fetching in his starry-eyed references to "Broadway" or yelping, in "I Wanna Be a Producer," "Stop the world! I want to get on!" (the number is also Stroman's triumph, transforming an accountancy firm into a Broadway stage, circa 1959).

A large part of the show's appeal is the catalytic chemistry of the two performers in tandem. Brooks bookends the characters' relationship with the exhilarating "We Can Do It" (winningly relocated to a Central Park fountain) and the surprisingly sincere "'Til Him," delivered before a bemused judge and jury. The production design (by Mark Friedberg), art direction (Peter Rogness), and costume design (William Ivey Long) are all terrific, but nothing in the film is more pleasing than the old-fashioned orchestration (Glen Kelly arranges the music by Meehan and Brooks).

Though it's easily one of the best musical comedies of the last four decades, The Producers on film is also a strikingly funny buddy comedy in its own right. Fans of bygone vaudevillian shtick will fall in love with Brooks all over again (collaborator Thomas Meehan shares screenplay credit). Who could resist Max's double entendre to Ulla: "Even though we're sitting down, we're giving you a standing ovation"? Or Max's production history, detailed in his office's poster decor ("When Cousins Marry," "The Breaking Wind," "King Leer")? Or the tagline-from-hell "A New Neo-Nazi Musical"? Or Max's Groucho-like rebuke "I'm having a rhetorical conversation!"?

If you can't get on this bandwagon, maybe you're taking life a little too seriously. Brooks winkingly, savvily includes a review of "Springtime for Hitler" that could just as well describe his musical: "It was shocking, outrageous, insulting, and I loved every minute of it!" In real life, The Producers is not for the resolutely politically correct or the shtick-averse. For everyone else, it's the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

[NOTE: By all means, do not leave until the end of the closing credits, which include bonus numbers and a cameo whose absence would be unforgivable.]

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