Tuesday, January 03, 2006

FINAL CUT: Germany Was Having Trouble

I remember it quite vividly: it was Valentine's Day, 2001, and my future fiancée had decided that we should celebrate with a show. So there we were, waiting in the lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theater, hoping for that most unlikely of circumstances: that someone would give up their tickets, and we would get in to see the pre-Broadway run of a new musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick called The Producers.

The love of my life is many things, and blessed with amazing ticket karma is one of them. So not only did we get the last two seats in the auditorium, but we plunked down in the fourth row, mere inches away from one of the greatest theatrical surprises of my life. I was quite familiar with the original Mel Brooks film, and while that was of course a very funny film, I had a healthy skepticism about the chances a musical adaptation would do anything but make one long for the movie. So very, very wrong was I. The score (by Brooks, remarkably enough) was enjoyable, the laughter hardly ever stopped, and in many respects, the stage version improved upon its source. (Moving the action back a decade, for example, to tie in more closely to Broadway's heyday and eliminate the cheesier elements of the late sixties.) Most importantly, the show's signature number, "Springtime For Hitler," positively soared onstage. It was was tremendous glee that I called up my friend Ted, who had already bought tickets for the New York run, and said something I had always wanted to say about a stage show: "It's gonna be a smash."

December 30, 2005 will probably not linger quite so long in my memory. I had high hopes as I settled into a seat -- fourth row, natch -- to see how The Producers had returned to the silver screen once more. A spate of poor reviews had diminished my optimism, but I figured that could work in the film's favor. Lowered expectations had done wonders the last time. And as the opening shot, a gorgeous, sweeping re-creation of 1950s Times Square, unspooled before me, my hopes began to rise.

They never got that high again.

To be fair, I'll venture that putting The Producers on screen is an idea that can't fail completely, for the simple reason that the basic material is too strong to flop. The basic premise about unscrupulous producers purposely putting on the biggest flop in Broadway history is amusing. That the flop in question will be a frothy musical comedy dedicated to Adolf Hitler is joyfully tasteless. And casting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as your leads ensures that there will be no shortage of talent at your disposal. Throw in Uma Thurman as your brainless bimbo and Will Ferrell as a crazy Nazi, and all the pieces should be in place. It takes real skill to squander all this good fortune.

And who has such destructive skill? I take no pleasure in saying that the blame has to lie squarely at the feet of one individual: director Susan Stroman. An extremely talented choreographer and inventive director, I've had the chance to see her stagework several times, including the exuberant Crazy For You and a less-successful but cleverly-staged version of The Frogs. I mention all this to try and explain how baffled I was by the flatness, the blandness, the gracelessness of this movie. Look at that last word. Movie. Implicit in those five letters is the crucial command "move." A movie must move, and this one stands defiantly still. It's shocking, and the film sinks like a stone as a result.

The best example of this comes in Lane's big number "Betrayed", a musical recap of the show so far. It's a tour de force piece, allowing Lane to prowl the stage and ply his shtick even though he's confined to a jail cell. Now, this is a hurdle to overcome if you want to make the scene film-worthy, but it can be done. In West Side Story, Richard Beymer never leaves an alley to sing "Something's Coming." Rick Moranis is stuck in a room with a puppet in Little Shop of Horrors. Heck, Kermit the Frog never budges from a log in a swamp in the opening of The Muppet Movie. So where does Lane go in "Betrayed"? NOWHERE! WE DON'T GO ANYWHERE! And this isn't a nod to realism, since the bars of his cell sport marquee lights. It's just uninspired, unimaginative.

The movie is filled with such moments, when you beg the film to fly or jog or just freaking MOVE, and it sits stubbornly in one place. Even in those rare moments when we get out and about, The Producers is strangely inert. A dance number for hundreds of little old ladies consists of a series of static shots. Scenes in Broadway's fabled Shubert Alley confine themselves to a single angle. Frankly, that opening shot of Times Square is as ambitious as the movie ever gets. Have you ever heard the critic's line where they say, "He directs the film like he's never seen a movie before"? Well, don't be surprised if you hear it here, because The Producers lacks even the most basic cinematic eye. No matter what you thought of Chicago, you can't deny that Rob Marshall had at least sat behind a camera before he created his superb adaptation of that show. Wasn't there anyone around to give Stroman a helping hand? Even Mel Brooks. The man's not known for being a supreme visualist, but even Robin Hood: Men In Tights didn't look this stilted.

An interesting sidelight, to go back to the earlier discussion of the stage version. I wasn't lying about how great it was at the Cadillac Palace. It killed. But you always have to find something to complain about, and our biggest gripe at the time was Matthew Broderick, who we thought was miscast. He was trying so hard to come off as nebbishy and ineffectual, and it just didn't feel quite right. Broderick's natural manner is ease, a casual nature, best seen in fare like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But though he didn't fit quite right, he didn't bother us too much, and he didn't ruin the show, and Nathan Lane seemed to like him, so we let it go. Well, seeing the film, it all came rushing back, and I'm now more convinced than ever that he's not really right for the part. Admittedly, following Gene Wilder is a mammoth task (one of the many reasons I avoided Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was out of fidelity to Wilder's magnificent Willy Wonka). Broderick's approach is built entirely out of nervousness. It's flat, and threatens to get irritating. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, they pretended to cast David Schwimmer in the role. I think he might be a better choice.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves fine, although there's this nagging sensation that they're waiting for the laughter to die before moving on to the next line. The more that happened, the more certain I was that I was watching a commemoration of the stage show, not a whole new movie. And that's just not all that fun. Granted, seeing the show costs at least ten times as much, but at least I'm watching something that makes sense where it is.

The bottom line is, I enjoyed The Producers well enough, and it got a surprisingly strong response from the audience around me. But the whole experience was frustrating beyond reason. I saw a show that was truly great. The took that show and made it into a movie that was okay. That shouldn't happen, and it's a damn shame.

* Barely related postscript: prior to this movie, I was treated to a preview of American Dreamz, and let me offer my kudos to the makers of that film for crafting a seriously bizarre piece of cinema. Seriously, good or bad, that is going to be one weird-ass film.