If ever a movie should open under the banner of Only If You Like This Sort of Thing, it's "The Producers," an unabashedly old-fashioned musical filled with song, dance, and shtick so shticky you could hang wallpaper with it. There's nothing remotely up-to-date or innovative about this glitzy film version of the Broadway musical, written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan and directed by Susan Stroman. But, in its slap-happy way, it creates giddy, giggly fun — not quite as much fun as watching the stage show, but an enjoyable evening at the movies.
This version of "The Producers" has a tangled pedigree — it's a movie made from a stage musical made from a movie. Brooks' 1968 comedy, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, was cheerfully tasteless (and very funny) Broadway satire: Max Bialystock, a low-rent Broadway producer, and accountant Leo Bloom team up to make money by mounting the worst show of all time. (Creative accounting, apparently, means that flops can make more money than hits.) "Springtime for Hitler," written by a Nazi lunatic and staged with goose-stepping chorus girls, looks to be that flop — except it isn't.
In 2001, Brooks teamed up with choreographer Stroman to transform "The Producers" into a hit stage musical, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Now it's back on the screen with songs in tow and much of the Broadway cast, with a few movie stars along for the ride: Will Ferrell plays nutcase playwright Franz Liebkind; Uma Thurman is Ulla, the Swedish bombshell receptionist.
And, considering Stroman's obvious inexperience with film, it works far better than it has a right to. Much of this material is so funny that all you have to do is point a camera in the vague direction of it — which, all too often, is exactly what Stroman does. The musical numbers are predictably but amusingly blown out: the vast lines of little old ladies with walkers in "Along Came Bialy" (which rhymes, handily, with "Who's your daddy?"); the rows of miserable accountants tapping a percussive beat on their adding machines in "I Wanna Be a Producer."
Everything in this movie is bigger than it needs to be, to comic effect — particularly the lead performances. Lane, his face glowing hammily pink, bellows his way through the role of Bialystock with surprising touches of subtlety. (Just brief touches, mind you.) Broderick, pale and nebbishy, lends his trademark trembling voice to Bloom, a milquetoast who blooms (sorry) at the idea of becoming a somebody: He wants to be a producer, in the lyrics of his song, " 'cause it's everything I'm not."
Ferrell, who can be thoroughly annoying in large doses, is very effective in his Lederhosen; spitting out his songs with an ever-wandering German accent and obvious glee. Thurman, a knockout in her clingy costumes, likewise seems to be enjoying sending up her sexpot persona. Among the supporting players, Roger Bart (the scary pharmacist George in "Desperate Housewives") stands out. As Carmen Ghia, common-law assistant to director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), he does a sprightly leap into the air as he hurries to answer a door — then, fleetingly, holds a hand to his lower back. (Sprightliness, apparently, is a tricky business.)
That's the kind of humor you'll get with "The Producers": over-the-top and loaded with broader-than-Broadway stereotypes. (Watch closely for some random throwaway gags: I was amused to see, on the doorbells to the building where the wealthy little old ladies live, the name of "E. Wharton.") And as a film intended to capture the magic of its stage stars, it falls a bit short: Lane and Broderick's performances don't leap off the screen as, say, Barbra Streisand does in "Funny Girl."
If musicals aren't your cup of tea, stay away — "The Producers" is strictly for those who are dazzled by a row of tap-dancing convicts, or tickled to recognize trademark Fred-and-Ginger steps in a romantic dance for two. Stroman's film seems unlikely to help the movie-musical genre rise from the dead: "Chicago" remains alone in that regard. But for sheer, silly entertainment, there are far worse options than spending two hours with this crowd. And if you don't like one gag, wait for the next one — it won't be long in coming.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org