Thursday, October 7, 2010

"The Producers" (1968)

Starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Kenneth Mars
Written and directed by Mel Brooks

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder star in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," about two men who try to set themselves up for failure in order to make giant amounts of money.  Mostel is Max Bialystock, a once-great producer who has fallen on hard times.  He pretends to love lonely old women in order to get money from them.  One day, he gets a visit from Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), an accountant sent to look at his books.  When Bloom discovers that Bialystock embezzled two thousand dollars from his last play, he makes the suggestion that, under the correct conditions, Bialystock could make a ton more money on a flop than a hit, since he wouldn't be required to pay back his investors.

Bialystock, of course, thinks this is the greatest idea he's ever heard.  With his ability to con pretty much anyone, and Bloom's money skills, he's sure they'll be able to come up with something.  They manage to find a play called "Springtime for Hitler," a godawful, pro-Nazi play by a former German soldier living in New York, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars).  After they manage to secure permission to stage the play, the next step is a director, whom they find in Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewitt), a man who says he's tired of directing musicals... but that "Springtime for Hitler" could use some music.  And then, of course... it's time for casting.   They discover their Hitler practically by accident when a supposed actor shows up to the wrong audition.  Bialystock and Bloom are trying their damnedest to make "Springtime for Hitler" the worst play ever.  But will everything go according to plan?   Probably not.  

Comedies have changed a lot since 1968.  Even Mel Brooks' own movies ended up quite different from the look and feel of "The Producers."  It doesn't have the sort of absurd, manic energy of his later films.  It's quieter, more subdued, relying more on a sort of subtle, dialogue-based humor rather than slapstick and over silliness.  There's still some of that on display here, but it's rare.  The film's most ridiculous, inspired sequence is the actual performance of "Springtime for Hitler," which starts out with an outrageously offensive musical number, and continues on into a bizarre, sitcom-style interpretation of the Third Reich.

Perhaps because the movie had been so hyped up to me that I was expecting it to be "rip-roaringly hilarious," or something.  It's funny, but it didn't blow me away, and there are parts of the film that are just kind of there, and some jokes that fall flat.  Again, "Springtime for Hitler" is absolutely hilarious in and of itself, but the rest of the film is problematic.  The film jumps from casting directly to the opening night, which makes the movie feel like it's missing an entire section, though it's obvious that this was done to preserve the shock value of "Springtime for Hitler" for the audience.  There are definite pacing issues, since the second half of the film is far funnier and moves at a far faster clip than the beginning.

Wilder is usually a comic presence to be reckoned with, but here he has little to do, playing second fiddle to Mostel's overbearing Bialystock.  He's set up as a nervous man, prone to attacks of hysteria, but this doesn't play into much of the film after his introduction.  The other secondary characters, Franz and Roger are just as one-note, but still hilarious.  The ex-Nazi Franz is a riot, occasionally bursting out into "Deutschland Uber Alles" and then realizing he's in America and switching over to "Yankee Doodle." 

Despite it's problems, I'm glad I watched "The Producers," and I certainly enjoyed it.  But it's far from my favorite Mel Brooks work.  If only the sort of energy and outrageousness on display during "Springtime for Hitler" permeated the entire film, I'm sure I'd be more on board with it.