The Producers (12A)

How to produce a stinker
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The Independent Culture

"We've seen shit before, but nothing like this!" sing two disgusted theatregoers emerging from the foyer at the start of The Producers. They were lucky. They'd only had to see the latest Max Bialystock production on Broadway; I wondered how they'd respond to what I'd just sat through. One might suppose that this golden egg, hatched to a great fanfare on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as its stars, would carry over some of its lustre to the big screen and dazzle audiences all over again. Well, it probably seemed a good idea at the time - unfortunately, the egg has gone rotten in transit, and the whiff hits you within 10 minutes.

Applaud Mel Brooks's persistence, at least. In 1968, his original film The Producers (with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) was a commercial flop, and might have remained a movie footnote had he not been persuaded to transform it into a Broadway musical in 2001. Cue a bona fide smash and a cavalcade of awards.

What we have in 2005, then, is the movie of the musical of the movie, and it feels like the fizz has been recorked once too often. I was no fan of the show when I saw it on Drury Lane, but you could at least acknowledge a certain pizz-azz in the staging. Stuffed back into the frame of cinema, the whole thing looks at once both drab and hysterical, as if an opera were being staged in a broom cupboard.

The story you will know. A timorous accountant, Leo Bloom (Broderick) shows up to check the books of the bumptious impresario Max Bialystock (Lane), and instead signs on as producing partner in a Broadway show which, thanks to their investors' money, will be more profitable as a flop than a hit.

Searching for "the worst play ever written" they chance upon a barmy neo-Nazi musical called Springtime for Hitler and manage to secure the rights from its goose-stepping, pigeon-fancying author, Liebkind (Will Ferrell). Does hilarity ensue? I'm afraid it does not. It is hopelessly muddled and misconceived.

The principal offenders, surprisingly, are the two leads, Broderick's whiny, weak-voiced nebbish being as flat as Lane's libidinous showman is puffed-up. Their patter feels strained and mechanical; little wonder given the number of times they've had to reprise their roles.

One could also question the wisdom of hiring the Broadway whizz Susan Stroman to direct it. By all accounts the bee's knees as a director and choreographer of theatre, she's all elbows and thumbs in charge of a movie camera, and doesn't seem to have a clue about instructing the cast in nuance and variation. Most of the actors are still playing to Row S in the Upper Circle, and we sit frozen before a wild-eyed display of mugging and gurning.

Even Stroman's forte as a choreographer goes to waste. The big set-piece on stage, which features a chorus line shaping a giant swastika to the tune of "Springtime for Hitler", is scaled down so clumsily that the joke vulgarity of it all but disappears. (The later dance of the Zimmer-framed crones is also a fizzle).

But there's something else wrong here, and you know it as soon as the first number ends: deafening silence. Without an audience to laugh, applaud and jolly them along, the songs just die in the pauses that follow.

Of course, this assumes that you'd want to clap in the first place. Brooks's reputation as an avatar of bad taste is no doubt secure, and if broad-strokes satire were the gold standard of comic excellence, then The Producers would be the funniest show on the planet. But this is plainly not the case, and indeed much of it requires an effort of will to endure - not because it offends taste, but because it neglects comedy. He is certainly no songwriter; many of the numbers sound like advertising jingles before the joke-writers got to them.

Yet what really dismays is just how dated the thing is. The larks over Ferrell's wigged-out Hitler fanatic still work, for the terror of Nazism is inextricable from farce, and Ferrell plays a nutter as well as anyone in Hollywood at the moment. So much else, however, leans on stereotype: the Swedish wannabe just has to be a blonde nymphomaniac with legs up to here; the Jewish producer has to be a shifty and grasping vulgarian; the gay director has to be a mincing, limp-wristed queen.

This last character is especially tiresome, even though Gary Beach as the showbiz legend Roger De Bris and Roger Bart as his "common-law assistant" pick up the easy laughs. But does the roar of mirth that greets the line "Darling, quick, back in the closet!" suggest to you an author's incomparable wit, or an audience's low expectations? To me, it had as much freshness and sparkle to it as a Dick Emery Christmas special circa 1973. Of the whole cast only Uma Thurman, tottering on her long, stork legs, seems to rise above the lumpen theatricality, and she fairly wipes the floor with the chinless, weedy Broderick. It's not much to show for the two hours-plus the film sees fit to occupy.

Brooks does have genius in him, as anyone who knows his "2,000-year-old man" routine with Carl Reiner will attest, but as a film-maker he has been coarse, undiscriminating and madly repetitive. Whatever magic you felt The Producers conjured on stage, cherish the memory; you won't find anything like it here.