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Photograph by Andrew Schwartz

Casting Call: Uma Thurman's Ulla brings a lot of joy to Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock in 'The Producers.'

Citizen Lane

The film version of the hit(ler) musical, 'The Producers,' is an old joke trying to look new

By Richard von Busack

MY GRANDFATHER Lt. Joachim von Busack was fortunate enough to meet Gen. Heinz Guderian, author of Achtung! Panzer and other light reading. It was on the Eastern Front in 1942. Granddad (who had only joined the Wehrmacht for the college benefits) was looking a little chopfallen due to his wounds and the 15-below-zero weather. Suddenly, the general entered his bunker. Granddad leapt to attention, but before he could salute, Guderian noted his mood. Clapping him on his remaining shoulder, the general rumbled, "Cheer up, soldier! They'll probably make one of those verdamnt musical comedies out of all this."

The Producers is a sick joke that is nearly 40 years old. The musical remake is almost a scene-for-scene retelling of Mel Brooks' 1967 farrago. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his trembling accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), stumble across the idea that overproducing a flop can result in profits. That is, if the play closed quickly—as quickly, say, as Bialystock's last one, the Hamlet musical Funny Boy. They choose for their flop a Nazi musical titled Springtime for Hitler, written by a pigeon-fondling Nazi (Will Ferrell); it turns out to have more audience appeal than anticipated.

Using sheer brashness, The Producers tries to top current levels of sick humor. How can it? We've seen a singing Hitler on South Park for years now, as a Christmas special, yet. One wishes for a pair of binoculars to aim in the wrong direction when viewing Lane and Broderick hamming it up in close-up. It's been a sad year of erasure for the legacy of Gene Wilder, what with this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Broderick is justly damp, wielding a security blanket like Linus in the funny papers. Still, he can't bring a Wilder-like sizzle to the neurosis of Leo. Lane, who has never modulated his acting for the camera, is like Elmer Fudd trying to play Bugs Bunny.

And then Uma Thurman turns up as the dim Scandinavian sex bomb Ulla, delivering her lines in an accent so thick that it is practically an act of war against Sweden. But Thurman dances with style and belts it with the appealing hoarseness of Gloria Grahame in Oklahoma!. The movie starts to bliss up a bit when Thurman waltzes with Broderick, over whom she looms by a foot. And from the Broadway casts, the Robert Preston act-alike Gary Beach and his "common-law assistant" Roger Bart are as smooth as two performers can be when lampooning gay stereotypes. Beach's Roger de Bris does have star quality. You can see why the first-night audience for Springtime for Hitler stops walking out to watch him.

The Producers is directed by the Broadway director/choreographer Susan Stroman, with the proscenium arch solidly in place. Ultimately, that staticness has a good purpose. The happiest part of The Producers is the lavish re-creation of Arthur Freed-era musicals: chorus girls dripping with pearls, the bijou-sized theatrical marquees and the stagiest of stage spectaculars. The main "Springtime for Hitler" number plays as an elderly joke. Still, plumping up its production values to classic MGM heft just makes it all the more barbarically splendid.

The Producers (PG-13; 134 min.), directed by Susan Stroman, written by Thomas Meehan and Mel Brooks, photographed by John Bailey and Charles Minsky, opens Dec. 25 valleywide.

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From the December 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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