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'The Producers' movie less an adaptation than a gigantic blowup

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In reviewing the movie version of Mel Brooks' Broadway musical "The Producers," it seems best to make specific recommendations right at the start.

If you haven't seen the play, by all means, take a look. You might be amused.

But if you have seen the play, especially if you've seen it with the original cast, treasure the memory and protect it. The movie will attack it like a virus.

For the uninitiated, "The Producers" began as a small and wonderful 1968 movie comedy written and directed by Brooks. It starred Zero Mostel as a shady Broadway producer and Gene Wilder as a timid accountant who becomes his partner in crime.

Their scheme: Sell 1,000 percent of shares in a play that is so bad it will close in one night, allowing them to keep the investors' money (since nobody is likely to check the finances of a flop).

Brooks and co-writer Thomas Meehan adapted it as a Broadway musical that took home more Tonys than Elizabeth Taylor at an Italian spa.

I was lucky enough to see the stage show when it opened in April 2001, and it was the most exhilarating experience I've ever had in a theater - any theater, including those showing movies. But the film, less an adaptation than a gigantic blowup, is - in all but its musical numbers - nearly unbearable.

And some of those numbers aren't so hot.

The movie, which I heartily endorsed on hearing the news of it, fails because no one involved - not Brooks, and certainly not theater-turned-film director Susan Stroman - thought it needed anything more than a camera and a few outdoor sets to bring it to screen life.

Watching the movie is like watching the play through a pair of binoculars from the front row. Suddenly, the lovable cartoon figures of Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) are so close, we can see their minds racing through the script.

I worried that the theatrical voices, especially that of Foghorn Lane, would be too loud in a movie theater. But no, it's their faces that are too loud.

Stage performances simply cannot be done in closeups. But there they are, a pair of 20-foot-high mugs showing every crease and dot of spittle as Lane and Broderick run through the broad gestures that were so delightful from a distance.

The movie offers a reversal of the play's fortunes: The characters have become huge and the choreography small.

I don't know if there's ever been a more awe-inspiring moment in theater than the "Springtime for Hitler" number in the play, when a mirrored ceiling tilts down and exposes the swastika created below - Busby Berkeley-like - by the dancing storm troopers.

Stroman gives us one overhead of that swastika, then returns us to our seats to watch the original staging, and its lack of dimension on the screen makes it seem so ... small.

Another number, where Bialystock's herd of elderly lady investors hobble into Central Park to tap-dance with their walkers, has none of the magic of what became a surprise show-stopper in the play.

With two major exceptions, the key roles are reprised by the original cast members, among whom Gary Beach - as flamboyant stage director Roger De Bris - is the lone sensation. Every moment with De Bris in the movie is an enriched version of those moments in the play.

But Lane and Broderick, as contrasted with their stage performances in my now-tainted memory, are awful. And I don't think newcomers Uma Thurman, as Swedish Amazon receptionist Ulla, and Will Ferrell, as nutty Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, add anything special.

A final but important note: In this era of computer magic, Franz's squadron of saluting pigeons is a disgrace. They are no more realistic than the prop birds giving him the "heil Hitler" on stage, and, alas, they now fill the screen.



2 stars

With Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell. Director: Susan Stroman. Running time: 2:14. PG-13: Sexual humor.


(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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