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movie review: "the producers"

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de-VICE #1


A gay old time for 'The Producers'

Andrez Bergen / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

2.5 stars out of five

Director: Susan Stroman

Cast: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman, Gary Beach, Will Farrell

Arguably Mel Brooks' most rib-tickling movie, the 1968 production of 'The Producers' showcased Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel at their comedic best. Then it lay dormant in the vault, before being dusted off in the form of a Broadway show at the beginning of this decade with a few bonus song-and-dance numbers penned by Brooks.

In the polished renewal, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane filled the formidable boots of Wilder's Leo Bloom and Mostel's Max Bialystock and, according to most reports, their shoe sizes were compatible. Lane in fact won a Tony award.

This movie, based in turn on the Broadway rejig, reveals just how much the whole shebang relies on the '68 original. Everything is the same. Well, almost--aside from the tunes and one or two plot changes.

It's 1960s New York. Max, a failed theatrical producer who's lost his musical shtick as the architect of a string of Broadway flops, crosses paths with the meek, anxiety-ridden accountant Leo--who just happens to conjure up an ingenious plan for raking in millions of bucks on the back of a bona fide Broadway bomb.

First they have to raise the funds from Max's aged female financial backers, to whom Max acts out the role of toy boy, offering to sell the old dears a stairway to the stars with half the steps missing.

Step two? Locating the worst play ever written: 'Springtime For Hitler', penned by German helmet aficionado Franz Liebkind, whose lasting memory of the Fuhrer is that he was "a good dancer." Add to this an egocentrically self-preoccupied director and an utterly incompetent cast, and all that's left for Max and Leo to collect are their plane tickets to Rio. Or so the plan goes...

While Broderick's interpretation of Leo is occasionally (high) pitch-perfect, he isn't up to the persona that Gene Wilder so effectively nurtured 28 years ago. By contrast, Lane genuinely excels as Max, the double-dealing slimeball impresario with a heart buried somewhere deep beneath his hefty production money belt.

It's a similar story with the rest of the cast. Uma Thurman positively smolders in the role of the sexy Swedish blonde bombshell Ulla, but Will Farrell--who strangely was nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance--fumbles his take on playwright Liebkind, a part that equally off-the-wall comedian Kenneth Mars had down pat back in 1968.

And absent here is one of the more hilarious characters from the earlier celluloid production--that of Dick Shawn's flower-tossing Lorenzo St. DuBois, known as just plain "L.S.D." to his friends, who took on the stage role of Adolf Hitler and rendered him a hip-jive flower child with a swastika armband.

This time around the honor of goose-stepping the boards for Germany goes to cross-dressing director Roger DeBris--played by actor Gary Beach, who also camped it up in TV series like 'Queer As Folk' and 'Will & Grace'.

Gay, it seems, has replaced flower-power in the mind of Mel Brooks some three decades after he originally wrote and directed the yarn, this time with emphasis on the characters of DeBris and his catty, posturing partner, Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), along with supporting players modeled on the Village People.

Brooks' script is loaded with other high school-level sexual innuendo, vulgarity, occasionally offensive racial stereotypes, ageism and anything else he wants to bludgeon with a blunt instrument--all delivered with such banal exuberance and gusto it somehow works.

Great for a bit of toe-tapping and a mild guffaw or three, The Producers may be set in the 1960s--but the superior 1968 version it's not.

(Apr. 13, 2006)

wilder & mostel

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