It’s hard to envision a worse big-budget film version of Mel Brooks’s Tony Award-winning musical The Producers than this dreadfully lifeless affair directed without a whit of imagination, novelty, or exuberance by the show’s original Broadway director-choreographer Susan Stroman. Studied to the point of suffocation, Stroman’s staging is the fatal dagger in this production’s farcical heart, turning what once was a vibrant (if slightly overpraised) slice of manic theatrical grandiosity into a leaden, stillborn dud that—while retaining the particulars of its story about titular shyster producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom’s scam to make money with the guaranteed fiasco “Springtime For Hitler”—nonetheless radiates the disappointing stench of miscalculation.
Having composed the film predominantly of straight-on medium and master shots that create an impression that one is watching a straightforward recording of an ever-so-slightly expanded stage performance (with brief fresh-air breaks off-set to iconic Manhattan locales like Sardi’s and Central Park), Stroman seems adverse to adapting the material cinematically, remaining resolutely faithful to the show’s Broadway construction even as joke after joke falls flatter than the slender stomach of Uma Thurman (as Swedish sexpot secretary Ula). It’s an ironic twist that this new Producers should be so painfully theatrical considering the story’s big-screen origins (as Brooks’s 1968 gem). Yet more astounding is the absence of its trademark rambunctious rhythm, a facet so blatantly underserved that the film cries out for a vivacious, go-for-broke stylist like Julie Taymor or even (dare I say it?) Rob Marshall, either of whom might have infused the action with some much-needed zany dynamism. As it stands, however, this celluloid edition feels not only stultifyingly static but—despite its 129-minute runtime—depressingly small, the bursting-at-the-seams panache of Brooks’s smash musical compressed and drained of vitality by Stroman’s lackluster mise-en-scène, which mainly consists of modest camera movements that restrict characters from straying far from the frame’s center.
Without any visual liveliness to match its rat-a-tat-tat one-liners, puns, and asides, The Producers asks its showboating stars to carry the energetic load. But though original Broadway cast members Nathan Lane (brash and blustery as Bialystock), Matthew Broderick (whiny and weak-kneed as Bloom), Gary Beach (as gaudy cross-dressing director Roger De Bris), and Roger Bart (as Roger’s common-law assistant Carmen Ghia) all work themselves into a histrionic lather, their flamboyant performances ultimately can’t overcome Stroman’s inability to properly shoot or edit for comedy. Faring best are the song-and-dance extravaganzas, which can be excruciatingly bombastic (like Bialystock’s show-recapping “Betrayed”) yet frequently exude a bustling Busby Berkley charm (most notably Bloom’s “I Want To Be A Producer”). And given the persistent structural inertia, it’s hardly surprising to discover that the film’s finest sequence turns out to be the wholly stage-bound “Springtime For Hitler,” which erupts with absurdly giddy pageantry.
Time and again, however, The Producers botches its transition from the boards to the multiplex, whether it be by excising Bialystock’s opening ditty “King Of Broadway” (crucial for establishing the character’s inherent shadiness) or by attempting to generate madcap energy by dialing the volume up to 11. With Will Ferrell as crazed Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, one might reasonably expect a few brief moments of unchecked lunacy, though as with Lane and Broderick—whose eyebrow-raising, limb-flailing, pratfalling antics come across as borderline unpleasantly arch—the former SNLer is kept from indulging in flights of fancy not originally scripted in Brooks’s book and lyrics. Incapable of surmounting Stroman’s shoddy stewardship, this loud, laborious, and surprisingly light on laughs film-based-on-a-musical-based-on-a-film may not be the type of monumental flop Bialystock and Bloom would have produced. But it’s reasonably close.