Music, jokes, parody, Nazis, shtupfing: If you had to sum up the cinema of Mel Brooks in five words, those would be the ones. (If you had a sixth word, it might be "Jews.") So it's especially nice to report that The Producers, the 2005 musical film based on his 2001 musical play based on his 1968 non-musical film about a musical, has all five of the main ingredients, and a touch of the sixth.
The funny thing -- and by "funny" I mean odd funny, not ha-ha funny -- about Brooks' original Producers was that its Jews were all done in code. Nobody said a thing about the ethnic origins of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock. Nobody had to: They were played by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, still fresh from his triumph as Tevya. Were they stereotypes? Of course. Was it parody? Probably. Is that harmful? Discuss. But were they funny? Yeeeeeees. So was the flaming theater director Roger De Bris and his manservant Carmen Ghia, whose relationship was slightly less coded but hardly articulated. In 1968, Brooks was an equal-opportunity comic offender.
His Producers is much less Jewish now. And how could it not be: With Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane playing Leo and Max, get out your WASP repellent. (Although strictly speaking, Lane is Catholic, and Broderick, I'm told, is Jewish on his mother's side -- the side that counts.) On the other hand, the new Roger and Carmen are so over-the-top that they hurt themselves falling down the other side. At least Brooks still has the will and grace to love a good pansy. (It's all about visibility, as Harvey Fierstein says.) The older film also had two jokes with "rape" as the punch line. The new, more enlightened, film has no such thing.
The Producers on stage won a record 11 Tony awards, and now it's been filmed with its original Broadway stars, and with its original Broadway director/choreographer, Susan Stroman, in her screen debut at the helm. Together they've made a big old throwback musical comedy, with acting as good as it gets without being inspired like the 1968 performances on which they're based. It's the most fun you'll have in a movie seat laughing.
When Brooks entered show business in the 1950s as a writer for TV's Your Show of Shows, vaudeville was already rotting in its grave. So he created a masterpiece of cinematic vaudeville: He could have set up a stationary camera and let it photograph Mostel and Wilder going through their hysterical gyrations. He won an Oscar for his screenplay, five years after he wrote and voiced The Critic, an Oscar-winning animated short that mocked art films and their enthusiasts. It all was a blueprint for the career that followed.
It's almost a movie plot that, so many years later, Brooks had the chance to turn his own movie into a full-scale musical. Who knew he was this good? For Brooks, this elaborate spoof of Hitler and the Reich is therapy, which is every comedian's middle name. The musical Producers is still often screamingly funny, and the songs, while certainly not Sondheim and Bernstein, are lively, melodious and occasionally catchy, reminiscent of Broadway at mid-century.
Still, there's not one song in the new Producers that's as good as the original film's renowned production number, "Springtime for Hitler," which is as uproarious as its name is audacious. It's also the title of the god-awful pro-Hitler apologia, written by a whacked-out crypto-Nazi playwright (Will Ferrell), that Max, a washed-up Broadway producer, and Leo, a nebbishy accountant, bring to Broadway and over-finance by 25,000 percent.
They plan to produce a flop and get rich when they don't have to return any profits to their financiers, an army of wealthy old ladies who pay to play naughty sex games with Max. But the scheme backfires when the opening-night audience embraces the tasteless debacle as grand comedy, leading Max to shriek: "I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?"
Stroman, a gifted stage director, films much of the non-musical action in The Producers like the cinematic amateur she is: Theater audiences move their heads more often than she moves her camera. But you get used to her static, and she almost always gets the musical numbers right. Her staging of "Springtime for Hitler" is even more lavish than the old one, and just as tuneful and bizarre.
Gary Beach (a Tony winner) and Roger Bart are campy-licious as De Bris and Carmen, backed up by a raging chorus of leather and lavender. Ferrell is a surprisingly good singer and dancer, although when he's not hoofing, he's chewing on a role originated in '68 by the indelible Kenny Mars. Jon Lovitz has a tart cameo as Leo's Wagnerian accounting boss, Andrea Martin lifts her skirt during the old-lady production number (they dance with walkers), and Uma Thurman is Ulla, the Swedish "secretary" who makes Max and Leo stand at attention while they're still sitting down.
The stars are outstanding, if not quite perfect. Lane, in his Tony-winning role, plays Max as a lascivious scoundrel, where Mostel's Max was a lascivious sniveler. It makes a difference, though finally, not much of one. And Broderick, who knowingly channels Wilder for a few quick lines, can be hilariously elastic when he allows himself to be. He's a very theatrical film actor, and occasionally in The Producers, he pronounces his lines like he's still on stage. But that's probably just jealousy talking, so don't mind me.