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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2005

Movie review: The Producers ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"Comedy's joyous, a constant delight!/ Dramas annoy us, and ruin our night!" - Mel Brooks

This Christmas Day, after you have opened presents and frantically searched for nine AA batteries and cried over the balance of your checking account and had your first argument with your brother at the dinner table, I can think of nothing better for dessert than a big scoop of The Producers, which opens today.

It's a musical film adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of the original 1968 comedy from Mel Brooks, which itself was so perfect it should have been packed away, on a national motion-picture preserve of some sort, where, well, a producer would not be allowed within 50 yards of an opportunity to fix it.

Of course, when the producer in question is the creator, we must, I guess, simply bear it.

And when the producer in question single-handedly raised tastelessness to an art form; when the work being fiddled with is a kind of celebration of go-for-broke, show-business audacity; when it tells the story of a pair of shyster producers who set out to stage a lavishly garish flop and bilk investors; when the work itself popularized the term "creative accounting"; when form fits content so snug:

Grin and bear it.

As Brooks writes, and Uma Thurman sings, as Ulla, the bodacious Swedish secretary who must have sex at 11 a.m. daily:

"People tell you modesty's a wirtue/ But in the theater, modesty can hurt you/ So ven you got it, flaunt it - show your assets!"

Moderation is for Jane Austen.

I will leave others to be outraged by the problems with this new Producers, or the many ways it doesn't live up to the original, or the many ways it doesn't live up the stage show, either. I had too much fun. And so I can't work up the bile to be hard on it, even though you'd have to be blind to see why it's not much of a movie, per se. It's more like an elaborate souvenir of the Broadway musical. Or a videotape of the show as seen from the front row through a pair of industrial-strength binoculars.

It's a fascinating question: If translating a work from one medium to another (and, in this case, back again) is so inherently risky, and if one form (like theater) is generally more expensive than the other (like film), do you get more or less for your money the further you get from the source?

It's an especially great question here, because when Brooks translated his film classic into a Broadway musical in 2001, he punched up the plot with songs and dancing recalling old cornball spit-takes and sex jokes, packed it with stereotypes, and set it on fire. He crammed every last inch of stage with noise and glorious obnoxiousness, and The Producers became something else: both a hit (the original film was a bomb), and a celebration of the tenacity of unashamed, burn-off-the-brakes vulgarity.

This new film of the musical is, in its own way, just as radical.

But primarily because it is the stage play, shot straight on in some cases, with a bizarre, minimum amount of refashioning for film. The original cast almost entirely returns: Nathan Lane, is the devious producer Max Bialystock; Matthew Broderick is nervous Leo Bloom, his partner in crime; Gary Beach, unimprovable as Roger De Bris, the Ed Wood of a stage director; Roger Bart as Carmen, the gayest stereotype of all time (and Roger's "common-law assistant"). Additions include Thurman as Ulla (inspired), and Will Ferrell as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who writes Max and Leo their opus - Springtime for Hitler.

When Brooks was asked why he would take such a dream production and deliver yet another movie version - the stage show and the movie so perfectly complemented each other - he said it was for posterity's sake. He wanted a record of his blockbuster. The man wasn't kidding.

Director Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed the stage musical, has never made a feature film before - and watching her Producers, at times I wondered if she had even seen a feature film before. She all but includes the proscenium arch.

Where the film of Chicago found a language that translated song-and-dance bits into an appealing visual rhythm, this Producers is pitched as if Lane still had to shout to the farthest seat. And Broderick mugs so frantically, it's almost uncomfortable to watch. Stroman shoots them all so close, I felt claustrophobic. When she does back off, it's to the simple, one camera staginess of an old Marx Brothers comedy; and when Lane belts "Betrayal" (a breathless midshow recap of everything that's happened so far), Stroman, incredibly, chops his performance into pieces.

So, why'd I like it anyway?

Because it's impossible to deny. Because these people, in this show, giving these performances, are once-in-a-lifetime. Part of me even thinks it should look a little stagey, considering how the material itself is about the stage, a kind of salute to Broadway. It's also important to remember that Brooks himself was concerned with delivering Oomph. Stroman hints at Busby Berkeley musicals and Fred Astaire glides; a few gloriously soaring camera moments that recall the movies of Gene Kelly. And though her tributes don't lend the numbers the breakneck pace they had on stage, she, too, trusts the material to deliver Oomph.

The Producers, version 2.1, still works because the kind of musicals it rallies against still exist. Hopefully the precious Rent will be playing in an adjoining theater and obnoxiously drowned out by Brooks' obnoxiousness. As they say, a good time is had by all. Unless you're Hitler, of course.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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