A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 180 – The Producers (2005)

The Producers (2005)

A few years back my mother called me up on a Friday night when Andy was working late. A friend of hers had gotten a couple of comp tickets for The Producers in Boston and given them to her and did I want to go? I said sure, because hey, a show that had gotten great reviews, based on a movie I loved, on stage for free? Why the hell not, right? So I changed out of my jeans and into something decent, met my mother and headed into Boston. It wasn’t the original cast, and we had these horrible seats up on like, the third balcony, and I spent most of the show sitting on my coat because the guy in front of me was about seven feet tall, but I also laughed my ass off. We all did. The entire theater. It made me wish I’d been able to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, but then they went and made a movie of it, so this combined with seeing a truly excellent stage production is the next best thing.

It’s an odd movie, to be honest. Funny as hell, but odd. It’s a movie based on a Broadway musical based on a movie about a Broadway musical. About Hitler. That’s a couple of levels of meta beyond the norm, plus, you know, Hitler. We don’t own the original movie (I know, I know, we’ll have to buy it tomorrow or something), but we’ve both seen it, and as I mentioned, I’ve seen it on stage. So I’m really looking at this as the offspring of the two. And as offspring of a stage show and a movie, it’s still odd. After all, the very nature of the original involves a stage show, so to put it on stage in the first place was going to be somewhat self referential. Like I said, levels of meta. And I do enjoy a stage show made into a movie. We’ve already done a couple, and I like looking at how things were changed between the two. But this isn’t a simple one way trip here. It’s a roundabout. The movie isn’t so much a movie based on the musical as the musical done on a movie budget and set. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to write a review about this other than to keep talking in circles. There’s a lot to mention, but every time I try it feels like I’m just making a list of things I like, and that doesn’t address the oddity of the movie’s feel. But I think I’ve worded that as well as I can manage and don’t want to just go on and on about it. Of course Nathan Lane is hilarious as Max Bialystock. I love Nathan Lane anyhow, and he plays his role, from songs to lines to movements to facial expressions, with a spot-on combination of ham, sleaze and charm. Of course Matthew Broderick is fantastic as Leo Bloom, though I will say that while he brings a lot of himself to the role, there were a few deliveries that were pure Gene Wilder (one shout in particular made me look up sharply because I could have sworn it was Wilder’s voice). This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something I noted as I watched. I enjoyed seeing Uma Thurman as Ulla, and while I’m not a big Will Farrell fan (I don’t dislike him, but he tends not to do the sorts of movies I enjoy) he did a bang up job as Franz. But I also liked seeing smaller roles like Michael McKean in the prison scene at the end, and John Barrowman on stage in Springtime for Hitler. And they all did good jobs. The entire cast did. They put on a wonderful stage show! On screen!

See, having seen the musical, I’ve got to say it feels somewhat oddly confined on the small screen. I think it would have felt oddly confined on the large screen too. Because it should be on a stage. This isn’t like Frost/Nixon, where the stage show is so drastically different from the movie, with the movie attempting to make the viewer feel like the sets aren’t sets where the play used the obvious and minimal sets to focus the action. And this isn’t like Jeffrey, where the more obvious stage show aspects of the script were mixed in with more film-friendly scenes. This is a stage show where the stage has been put in front of cameras. Sure, they don’t have to clear the stage and change the sets in moments between scenes. They had time to change costumes and makeup and you don’t get the same feel that live theater (even recorded and viewed on a screen) has. But it is theater. It’s not the musical numbers (which are great, and catchy, and my mother and I had to consciously not hum Springtime for Hitler on the train on the way home from the play), and it’s not the performances, and it’s not the sets. There’s nothing wrong with the movie. Nothing at all, in my opinion. It’s just not quite completely a movie.

I had a lot of fun watching this tonight, despite its odd nature. I laughed out loud, I enjoyed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I envisioned the stage performance, and I remembered the original movie. I like this movie. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though there is that pesky thing about the plot and all. I mean, the original almost didn’t get released. It’s about two Broadway producers who, in trying to make a guaranteed flop, produce a lighthearted musical about Hitler winning World War II, complete with swastika dance formation. It balances right on a razor’s edge of taste and does some fake-out dips to the wrong side every so often. It’s certainly got that in common with the original movie. But what it’s also got in common with the original is that it manages to stay funny. And that the humor was kept through the transition from original to musical on stage to musical on screen is fantastic. And if you like that sort of thing, the movie does a great job. So since Lane and Broderick aren’t performing it on Broadway anymore, the movie really is an excellent stand-in.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Producers (2005)

August 27, 2010

The Producers (2005)

I wish we owned the original Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder Producers. I’ve seen it before of course, but it has been many, many years since I last did. I see the echo of Wilder’s performance in Matthew Broderick here (particularly when he’s shouting) but I can’t really address how this show works as an adaptation. Neither have I seen the musical on the stage, so I can’t even review it as an adaptation of the stage show. Maybe I can summon some thoughts on it as a film musical in general instead.

The plot of the musical echoes that of the movie it is based on. Max Bialystock is a down on his luck Broadway producer whose productions are famed for being unbelievably bad. Leo Bloom is an accountant who shows up one day to examine his books and comes to the realization that given a sure-fire failure a producer could raise all the money he could want and just keep the extra when the play flops. So the two of them find the worst play they can find, the worst director and the worst actors they can. The play, of course, is Springtime for Hitler, an ode to Nazi Germany during World War Two, and the rest is history. Probably the most memorable part of the original movie is the big Springtime For Hitler musical number, so it almost makes sense that Mel Brooks would re-visit the movie thirty years later to create a huge Broadway hit musical about making Broadway hit musicals.

What’s odd about the movie is that it’s a strange kind of hybrid of a stage show and a movie musical. It clearly has a much bigger budget than even a Broadway show would, but it also has a sense a lot of the time that it would rather be a stage play than a movie. For example: Max’s office, where a great deal of the action takes place, has the feel of a stage set. There is no fourth wall. Director Susan Stroman makes an effort to move the camera around and cover the room from several angles, but it never really feels like a room, because the side opposite the window is never shown. (Because it never existed in the set, I suspect.) All the furniture in the room is arranged facing towards that non-existent wall.

Some of the bigger dance numbers in the movie also feel as though they would be better on stage. In particular Bloom’s big “I Want To Be A Producer” number with the chorus girls emerging from file cabinets in his work place and the transition to the brightly lit Broadway of his daydreams is cool, but would have been cooler live.

Another example: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick play their roles with the well-oiled ease of people who have read these lines and crafted these performances over the course of hundreds of shows. If you listen to Susan Stroman’s commentary you hear about how some of the gags in the movie evolved from flubs and ad-libs on stage that the actors chose to keep because they got a laugh. One result of this is the way they play to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to encourage a laugh. It’s a very live theater thing, and it feels odd and out of place sometimes in a movie format. Another result is that their timing is sometimes strangely… off. It was only as I was watching it again tonight that I realized that this is because they are pausing from time to time, probably subconsciously after months of practice getting the maximum audience response to their portrayals, for laughter or applause that are not there in a movie.

On the other hand you have clear attempts to make the show more Hollywood. There’s a big soundstage set of Broadway and the theater marques which is used in the opening and closing numbers and the “Break a Leg” number. And of course a few of the larger parts in the movie have been given to Hollywood talent. Will Farrell hams it up wonderfully as Franz, the author of Springtime. Uma Thurman looks to be having a terrific time playing the oversexed Ulla. Both of them are so very, very tall. Susan Stroman also tries to make the movie more movielike by shooting a couple scenes outside in the real New York and Central Park.

The end result is a movie that feels strangely fractured. At times it’s almost as though they brought a camera onto the stage at a performance of the play. At other times it feels as though it’s trying to be something bigger. I found the mix of styles distracting, which is sad because the musical itself is so much fun. I almost wish they HAD just filmed a stage show. There’s more wonder in cool practical props and mobile scenery than there is in special effects and clever editing.

I cannot find flaw with the play itself though. I can clearly see why it won all those Tonys. I bought the soundtrack right after watching the movie for the first time, and it lives on my iPod. It’s funny, irreverent, silly and basically an ode to everything Broaday. If you need more proof of Mel’s love of the theater you need look no further than the number sung over the movie’s closing credits about how there’s nothing like a Broadway show. (And once more I must admonish viewers to stay right to the end of the credits because Mel has a fun little ditty in there after the credits are over and a cameo appearance for himself.)

As a movie I can’t say if this is truly a success. It’s an odd mix of styles and at times I wished that I could have seen real Broadway performers in the roles that were given to big name Hollywood folks in an effort to make the movie more commercial. (It was a little bit like watching Ellen Degeneres dancing Alex Wong’s part in the last episode of the most recent season of So You Think You Can Dance.) If, on the other hand, this movie is intended as a love letter to Broadway and it’s supposed to make me want to turn of the DVD player and go buy a ticket for a live play or musical, well then it succeeded in that.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment