“I wanna be a producer,” sings Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), “‘Cause it’s everything I’m not.” With this sentiment at its smug center, The Producers posits a friendship between two men looking to fool themselves. The fact that they’re working from opposite starting points to produce the worst show ever on Broadway — Leo’s a twitchy accountant and Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) a blustery, cynical producer — only underlines the conceptual perfection of their partnership.
While the film offers glimpses into this perfection — in the form of fleeting moments rather than entire scenes — it is for the most part so unsubtle that it grates. Shot in frequent close-ups even as the performers act for imaginary far-away live audiences — grimacing, galumphing, spasticizing — the film version of Mel Brooks’ musical (not to be confused with the non-musical film on which the musical is based) strains against its character-based comedy. It begins and ends with an odd couple, Max and Leo, who eventually and inevitably come to see in one another their own ideals. But before they become such charming “prisoners of love,” they do a lot of prancing and conniving, none of it so hilarious as they seem to think it is.
The scheme that brings them together seems at once obvious and ridiculous. They will put up a terrible show, collect lots of financing, and close it opening night following the sure-to-be-dreadful reviews. The show, of course, is “Springtime for Hitler,” written by Hitler loyalist Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). He means to set the record straight on Der Führer, detailing in song his romance with Eva Braun and delightful humanity. Leo and Max are beside themselves with glee when they discover the piece, agreeing to all sorts of conditions to get the rights to it, including a song-and-dance number on Franz’s rooftop, where he wears his lederhosen and looks after his animatronic pigeons (the one named Adolph salutes Nazi-style).
In order to ensure the show’s failure, the producers seek out the worst director they can find, the flaming Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), who first appears on screen dressed in a flouncy gown. He says he’s on his way to a party, but why even bother with a rationale? Roger and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) are surrounded by Village People-styled crew members (plus a mannish lesbian in flannel shirt), all making their splashy appearances at the end of the scene, when Roger agrees to terms and the play-making commences. Their plan seems unstoppable, especially when Roger decides that oafish, earnest Franz is the only one who can play Hitler. Max and Leo are practically cackling.
The unthinkable happens when the understudyless Franz breaks a leg on opening night and Roger goes on instead. He’s so fabulous in every way that the show’s a hit and the producers are ruined. Or, almost.
No one can be wholly ruined in a big fat sardonic musical, a form demanding grandeur, gaucheness, and above all, giddy delights. Unfortunately, this movie musical rather forgets the movie part. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s Producers delivers these elements in seeming bulk , with gigantic gestures and broad blocking left over from the stage production. Take, for instance, the two dazzling numbers featuring Ulla (Uma Thurman), Leo and Max’s secretary and “Springtime” female lead. In the first, she throws open her arms, slides across the desk, and swings her hips while proclaiming, “When You Got It, Flaunt It.” Thurman’s form is daunting in itself, but the repeated shots of her bottom gyrating across the screen in medium close-up — the boys’ gaga faces providing an unnecessary frame for your response.
For the second, Ulla has painted the entire dingy office white, from floor to drapes to file cabinets — in an effort to “tidy oop” (as she phrases it in her expansive Swedish “accent”). While the dancing portion of this scene is sweepingly “romantic” (the pastel lighting turns both set and figures into exquisite illusions), Leo’s lusting is just goofball, neither endearing nor amusing.
And yet, the film does come up with a strangely affecting number towards its end, when Max is on trial (this after he’s run through the entire plot, and numbers, in a four-minute abbreviation in his cell, suggesting how economical the film might have been). Though he has escaped to a tropical isle with Ulla, Leo flies back to testify on his friend’s behalf, insisting on the positive influence the crook has had.
Leo’s love ballad reveals Broderick’s lovely voice and serves a useful plot purpose (using the term “plot” loosely), as it sets the ground for the closing scene in prison. Here the boys are putting on another scam show, now having found their ideal milieu, not to mention a captive audience with terrible taste in set design. It’s almost too bad that they are pardoned, for bringing “joy and laughter into the hearts of every murderer, rapist, and sex maniac in Sing Sing.” That’s something.