Don't get me wrong; Mel Brooks is a national treasure, if only for "The 2,000-year-old Man." But if you think the fart scene in "Blazing Saddles" makes it the funniest film ever, and if you think "The Producers," with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, was the next best, or even if you switch their order around, you should stop reading now because you'll just be hurt. Brooks is a man with wonderful ideas who never should have been allowed to direct his own films; more than that, he's never known when to stop, and knowing that is the secret of good comedy.
And so a few years ago he turned "The Producers" into a big Broadway musical that missed the film's larger-than-life presence of the great Zero, unhappily dead these many years, along with his timid acolyte Wilder as Leopold Bloom; and coming no closer for his Max Bialystock than Nathan Lane, who tries to imitate Mostel but is not a natural physical comedian and can't improvise on stage; and adding Matthew Broderick as Bloom. But what happened is that the new casting throws off the relationship between the two men, giving Bloom an equal position in the show - not necessarily bad - but then forgetting to give him the good lines the built-up character would need. So the relationship is fatally skewed, with disastrous results for the comedy.
Okay, I've gotten that off my chest. The idea for "The Producers" is magnificent: a sleazy Broadway producer (Bialystock) has come up with a brilliant idea - he'll sell a thousand percent of his show to rich, elderly widows whom he entices by shtupping them until they fall in love with him and give him their money. Then he picks the world's worst script - in this case a musical by an unreconstructed neo-Nazi (Will Ferrell) called "Springtime for Hitler" - and expects it to close in one night, thereby giving him a cash balance of 900 percent of the show's cost. Of course, it unexpectedly becomes a big hit and Max and Leopold must pay the piper.
"The Producers" is currently a big hit on Broadway, and so Brooks and his stage director Susan Stroman have turned it into a film with the same leads, and what looks like much of the same staging. In fact Stroman as film director uses some of the same devices she used on stage, with one scene opening up into the next, larger one, as dancers come marching into the frame for the musical numbers. But with the exception of a marvelous Busby Berkeley moment in which we see the dancers from overhead as they move in a swastika pattern, the musical numbers are flat. In part that's because Brooks is only a mediocre composer, relying on pastiches of Broadway styles instead of inventing his own; in part it's because Stroman as choreographer has chosen to rely on Broadway dance cliches instead of creating new moves.
And here's the worst of it: there are no funny lines. There are funny situations, and some incidental witty moments - I think of Will Ferrell's pigeon giving the Nazi salute - but for the most part we can only sit and wait out the film. Uma Thurman, as Ulla the Swedish bombshell, tries her best to pick up the momentum, but it's a lost cause; nobody gets to say or do anything funny. Moreover, there are squirming moments galore as Brooks makes very dated fun of flamboyant gays - Gary Beach as Roger DeBris, the director of "Springtime for Hitler," and Roger Bart as his lover Carmen Ghia. It's like looking through a time warp at a blackface minstrel show. As successive copies of copies of an original get fainter and flatter, so this iteration of "The Producers" is the flattest of all.