This evening koriandrkitten and I went to see The Producers. She had invited me the other night and I said yes. Then I thought about Ellen and Nick and Liz and how they all wanted to see it, and I considered canceling. Then I decided that what with Nick laid up for awhile after his back surgery, I might as well go and uh, test the movie for everybody else.
Short review: It's fun. Expect to be offended.
I didn't see the original film until early this year, and quite frankly, I wasn't that impressed. Sure, the premise makes a good joke, and it broke a lot of taboos in very overt ways, but beyond its envelope-pushing, I thought that the 1968 version of The Producers was little more than a fun way to spend 90 minutes.
The plot, for those who didn't pick it up from the trailer or through cultural osmosis, revolves around Max Bialystock, the worst producer on Broadway. "Funny," says his accountant, Leo Bloom. "Under the right circumstances, you could make more money with a flop than a hit." Armed with this idea, Bialystock and Bloom decide to produce Springtime for Hitler, a musical so wretchedly offensive that it can't possibly become a hit.
That's really all the premise you need. The story takes us through the production, from obtaining the blessing of neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind to the casting of a nearly burnt-out hippie named LSD as Hitler. It was Mel Brooks' freshman outing as director, and it shows. Oh, it's not a bad movie by any means, but everything about it is a little uneven. The jokes and caricatures haven't aged well, which is really unusual for a movie that has stayed so popular. Parts of the movie work so poorly that it takes a careful and critical viewing to realize that they were supposed to work in the first place. The perfect example is LSD -- a relevant character in 1968, he's barely even recognizable as a hippie in 2005.
In 2000, Mel Brooks revisted The Producers, added enough songs to turn it into an actual, genuine musical, and made some necessary changes to fix the parts which didn't work (LSD didn't make the cut). The Producers has been running on Broadway since 2001.
I'm assuming that the movie is a very faithful adaptation of the stage show. It looks and feels like a stage show. The gestures of the actors are big and grandiose, as if they're playing to the balcony. The casting is top notch, with all of the major actors having been transplanted directly from Broadway, notably Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Bialystock and Bloom, respectively. The only new performers are Uma Thurman as Ulla (B&B's Swedish secretary), and Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind. I'm not generally fond of either ('specially Will Ferrell), but they're well-cast for the roles they play. Director Susan Stroman is taking a lot of flak right now for being under experienced, but this is her second directorial effort (the first was a direct-to-video musical nobody's ever heard of). I'm gonna go out on a limb here congratulate her for delivering a major motion picture which is well-paced and fun to watch. These are not qualities to be taken lightly, especially where musical comedies are concerned, where timing is everything. The flaws of The Producers are technical ones. Kevin Smith made two motion pictures before he ever put the camera on a dolly. Stroman's not a great filmmaker, but she might be working up to it.
So how does the new movie compare to the old one? Very well, I think, though fans of the 1968 version will undoubtedly balk at the sort of things people balk at when somebody "desecrates the classics" in an effort to fix them. We saw this reaction from Star Wars fans when George Lucas "fixed" the original trilogy, and we saw it when Sierra re-released Space Quest in VGA (at least, I saw it. You probably weren't paying attention). On an immediate level, the biggest change is the new songs. They're a good thing -- not instantly hummable, but they fit.
Much of the dialogue has been lifted directly from the original version and polished slightly, much like Douglas Adams did with the many versions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A lot of positive changes have been made. Jokes that didn't work have been swapped for new ones. One of the saving graces of Mel Brooks' films is that he makes as many jokes as he can think of in the hopes that some of them stick. 32 years elapsed between The Producers' original premier and it's rewrite, and in that time audiences have found and latched on to the best jokes in the source material. That stuff has all made the transition, and I don't miss the jokes that didn't.
It's hard to compare the actors between the movies, because they're all doing their own interpretations of the characters, or rather, it doesn't feel as if anybody sat down with Nathan Lane and said, "see what Zero Mostel is doing in the old version? Do some of that." Will Ferrell's Leibkind is not Kenneth Mars' Leibkind, and it feels right for this movie.
What's bad about The Producers? It's offensive, and in a very weird way.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have nothing on Mel Brooks where poor taste is concerned because he done it first. Neither movie is really anti-semitic, but the anti-antisemitism of the 1968 version was met with such anger and disgust that it nearly prevented the film's release. It's still there in the new one, but its effect is dampened by the intersection of "well, they don't really mean it," and "been there, done that." I guess I feel most uncomfortable that I don't feel uncomfortable about it, but I know I should. It's like when David Cross makes horrendous racial slurs to point out the idiocy of racial slurs. Somewhere under all the cynicism and the knowledge that he's joking is that twinge of guilt that it's just as hurtful as it is funny.
Then there are the gay jokes. In 1968, The Producers flaunted homosexuality to a moviegoing public who were aware of the concept on a very peripheral level. It's like watching gay jokes in Monty Python's Flying Circus. The "gay personality" was grossly exaggerated because a) the gay community wasn't exactly proud and vocal, and b) everybody was suddenly pushing the content envelope, which hadn't moved much in the preceding couple of decades. The 2005 version of The Producers has the same gay jokes as the 1968 version, but they come across differently through contemporary cultural filters. As a straight man, it's more embarrassing than offensive. Not sure how my gay and lesbian friends will react.
More than anything, I think these things illustrate just how much the world of mainstream comedy has changed since 1968. It's not really progress, more constant redefinition of our cultural hot buttons. The old jokes in The Producers would never fit into any other new movie, and this is the cumulative result of political correctness, changing social norms, and the overproduction of mainstream media in the hopes of reaching the perfect, huge demographic. Toss in Mel Brooks' sense of humor and the permissiveness of the PG-13 rating in 2005, and you have a movie's too overtly risque for 1968's standards, but too comedically dated for current ones. It doesn't really fit anywhere. That's not to say that it's not fun. It is fun -- a lot of fun -- but I think a lot of people are going to have a hard time figuring out how they feel about it.
Anyway, nobody walked out during the movie, and most of the theater stayed through all of the credits (and it's worth it, by the way). People seemed to like it a lot.
Oh, finally, I was looking at The Onion's AV Club to see if they'd reviewed The Producers yet... No luck, but they have a list of eight things they'd like to see on DVD. Guess what topped the list? Twin Peaks, season 2. Boo yah. They also mention that David Lynch's other TV series, On The Air needs a proper DVD release. Personally, I thought that my owning a copy proved that it had gotten one, but further investigation shows me that what I have is actually a region-free Japanese version. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess.