The holiday season is a merry time of tinsel and twinkle lights, rum-laced eggnog, sugar cookies and Santa. Festive - one might even say, jolly.
Except, of course, in movie theaters, where Serious, Ponderous films of near-epic length fill the screens and vie for Oscar consideration. Normally, I look forward to this season with wild anticipation. I’ve never been a fan of special effects-laden summer blockbusters, preferring to get my cinematic thrills from stately adaptations of serious novels, three-hour historical dramas, big-budget biographies and lots of major emoting from sure-to-be-nominated stars.
But the 2005 holiday film slate seems overloaded with very loooong, very serious films, to the point where even a trifle like “Fun with Dick and Jane” was a welcome distraction.
Take “Syriana” (nicknamed “Snore-iana” by one of my moviegoing companions.) I’m sure this was a blistering, brilliant indictment of governmental and corporate corruption - and I could say so for sure if only I had been able to follow any of the three or four parallel, mostly incoherent plotlines within. “Syriana” is more convoluted than a whole season of “Alias.” Here is a neat summary for you, so that you can save yourself 2.5 hours and 9.5 bucks: Oil companies and neoconservatives are bad. (At least that’s what I THINK the point was. By the time the Bad Torturer Guy started pulling out George Clooney’s fingernails, I lost all track of what was going on, and hid my face under my coat.)
Much better was “Munich” a fine, well acted and directed film which I admired very much. It’s very bleak and tense and raises a lot of issues about the nature of terrorism that it doesn’t neatly resolve. I applaud Steven Spielberg for making it, and it hope it wins a lot of awards. But there is no way in hell I could sit through those 2 hours and 45 minutes again.
And I didn’t even see “Brokeback Mountain” (which friends tell me is slow and ponderous), or “Memoirs of a Geisha” (which the same friends tell me is beautiful and slow and ponderous.) Or “King Kong” - 3 and half hours of ape histrionics is a little more than I can handle just now.
Sometimes a gal just needs to see a big, colorful, flawed-but-fun musical extravaganza like … “THE PRODUCERS”!
Now, “The Producers” has received a sound drubbing from nearly every critic in the country - and the theatre buffs on “All That Chat” (the talkinbroadway.com message board where I frequently lurk) have just about ripped it to shreds. And many of their points are valid. It IS stagey and doesn’t reimagine the stage play in any fresh or exciting way for film. Director Susan Stroman is no Bob Fosse or Rob Marshall -she’s more like Morton DaCosta. DaCosta directed both the stage and film version of “The Music Man.” Now the film version of “The Music Man” hardly represents great filmmaking. But it’s a lot of fun because the show itself is so much fun. Same standard applies to the film version of “The Producers.” I’m crazy about the stage production, which I’ve seen twice (although never with the original leads.) So, I mostly enjoyed the film - in fact, I’ve seen it twice already, and I might just squeeze in a third viewing before it leaves the theatres.
I was excited to finally see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles they originated on Broadway, although I ultimately came away a little disappointed with the results.
Lane was delightful. He is the master of the comically arched eyebrow, the double-take, and brilliantly timed, smart-ass retort, yet he never abandons the emotional truth of the characters he plays. He was a joy to watch, and I didn’t once think about Zero Mostel while I watched him sing, dance and twinkle his way through the role of Max Bialystock. Matthew Broderick, on the other hand, made me miss Gene Wilder. Wilder’s wild-eyed hysteria in the original film seemed natural and organic to him - it never felt false or ‘put on’ just for the sake of being wacky. Broderick, by contrast, ‘puts on’ over-the-top facial contortions and shrill wheezing and whining like they were parts of an ill-fitting costume. It's often painful to watch. He occasionally reminded me of Pee Wee Herman at his most annoying. I liked Broderick better on the second viewing, but only marginally so.
Lane and Broderick reportedly had legendary chemistry together when they played these roles on stage. In the film, that chemistry is most apparent in their (unexpectedly touching) courtroom duet, “Till Him.”
As for the supporting cast - let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Uma Thurman is a train wreck. Ulla should be a busty, blonde Amazon who belts like Ethel Merman and dances like Cyd Charise. Thurman has the requisite platinum locks and skyscraper gams, but her odd, droopy face and flat chest don’t quite add up to ‘bombshell’. And she sings and dances like a woman on the lower rungs of the community theater ladder. When she belts, she goes flat. When she executes a spectacular dance move - well, she doesn’t - a dance double is obviously edited in. And her ‘Sveedish’ accent comes and goes without warning.
As for Will Ferrell - let me just say this - he must have the hardest-working agent in show business. If you had to guess ten years ago who would be the most successful of SNL’s alumni, would you honestly have picked Will Ferrell? He’s a decent sketch comic and provides some fun in movies like “Old School” and “Wedding Crashers.” But, please, why does everyone (even Woody Allen for God’s sake!) want to work with this guy? In “The Producers” he’s not BAD exactly - he’s entirely serviceable, in fact, - but he sorely lacks the show-stopping nuttiness that Kenneth Mars brought to the original film. Will Ferrell’s performance mostly made me feel bad for Brad Oscar, Broadway’s original Franz Liebkind. I saw Oscar play Bialystock on stage, and he was superb(enough so to give Lane a run for his money), so I can only imagine how great he must have been as Liebkind. How sad that in the film he is reduced to a walk-on part as a cab driver.
Happily, Gary Beach and Roger Bart repeat their Broadway roles as Roger DeBris, the flaming director, and his “common law assistant,” Karmen Ghia. Both are so far over-the-top and beyond political correctness as to be absolutely, riotously hilarious. Whenever they were onscreen, I was deliriously happy. I got to see Beach do this role on Broadway, and it is one of my favorite theatergoing memories. I’m going to buy the DVD of the film just to be able to see his hysterical performance again and again (and Lane’s).
I love the songs in “The Producers” - every one of them. I’ve had the Broadway cast recording on CD for 4 years, and I still love to play it and sing along. (In fact, it’s in my car CD player right now.) You’d never confuse a Mel Brooks song with one of Stephen Sondheim’s, but his music and lyrics for “The Producers” are a happy blend of his trademark, ebullient vulgarity with sweetly old-fashioned melodies. I was disappointed to see the very funny “King of Broadway” number cut from the film, and also by the cuts in “Springtime for Hitler” (including the elimination of a whole section with one of my favorite lyrics - “The Fuhrer is causing a Furor!”).
Other bits I loved: the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number with Jon Lovitz’ fun cameo and some of Broderick’s best scenes in the film, the sparkly, NYC-circa-1959 sets, the all-too-brief appearance of Andrea Martin in the chorus of Little Old Ladies (I wish she had more scenes) and Lane’s big, brilliant, 11 o’clock number, “Betrayed.”
I’ll take “The Producers” over the Big Important Serious Films of December - any day!