Tuesday, April 04, 2006

THE PRODUCERS: Typical Mel Brooks comedy

(musical comedy)
Time: 128 mins
Rating: * * *
Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman and Matthew Broderick
WAY back in 1968, comedian Mel Brooks made his big-screen directorial and writing debut with a spoof on Broadway plays called The Producers. It was a farce about how two producers (played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) come up with a get-rich scheme by making the worst play ever for Broadway.

They had expected the play to fold prematurely — so that they can pocket the money. However, the play turns out to be a hit and this lands the two in trouble with their financiers. Predictably or not, the movie, which was not a musical, turned out to be a success — as a nostalgic embrace of a dying show-business tradition.

This success prompted Brooks to transform the movie into a Broadway musical in 2001. The musical, which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, became a monster hit and won 12 Tony Awards out of the 14 it was nominated for. It sold out one year in advance on Broadway and was equally successful in London. So can a movie about the play about the movie be overlooked?

For this movie, Brooks got many of the theatrical principals on board, including director Susan Stroman, Lane and Broderick. The result is a silly but affecting old-fashioned musical which should appeal to both theatre-goers and movie fans. Yes, some of the musical numbers drag a bit and most go over the top. However, there are some witty lines here and there — and an overall tone of retrograde humour that pokes fun at the hazy Fifties.

What’s more, Lane is impeccable as Max Bialystock, the scheming theatre producer who makes a business of milking old ladies of their cash. Lane puts his customary gay image to good use here and he is always fun to watch as he puts up an idiotic play called Springtime For Hitler. Broderick is Leo Bloom, an accounts clerk who quits his job to become Max’s partner-in-crime. Broderick provides the requisite naivety and vulnerability to his role, especially when confronted by Uma Thurman’s Ulla, the Swedish receptionist-cum-actress that Max hires to complete the scam. Yes, Thurman manages to liven up every sequence she appears in.

Others who somehow ham their roles include Will Farrell as the eccentric neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, and Gary Beach as Roger De Bris, the flamboyant gay director who is hired to make a mess of the play.When I say ‘ham’, it may not be a bad thing as the actors are supposed to be bad, anyway. It is just Mel Brooks’ tradition of ‘keeping it bad’ so that it looks good in a round-about way.


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