For all its taboo-shattering vulgarity and jokes about shtupping old ladies and singing, dancing Nazis, there's something fundamentally innocent about The Producers, both Mel Brooks' classic 1968 original and its new musical adaptation. Brooks' rapturous valentine to bad taste is at heart an infectious celebration of the joy of putting on a show, even one specifically designed to be the worst travesty ever to hit Broadway. Underneath the original's crassness and ribald sexual humor lies a good-natured buddy comedy in which Zero Mostel seduces wide-eyed Gene Wilder as much as he seduces the audience.
Brooks' film about an inexplicable Broadway hit that was in turn transformed into a genuine Broadway hit is now returning to the big screen courtesy of original Broadway director Susan Stroman. The result is largely a giddy, goofy delight. Reprising their stage roles, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick step into Mostel and Wilder's shoes as, respectively, a shabby, disreputable Broadway producer and a nervous accountant who realizes that a failed show could potentially make its producer more money than a successful one. With larceny in their souls and a song in their hearts, Lane and Broderick then go about producing the worst musical imaginable, a "gay romp" called Springtime For Hitler.
Stroman's film stumbles a bit out of the gate, and Lane and Broderick initially seem like poor substitutions for Mostel and Wilder. As the kind of loveable sleazebucket who seemingly tumbled out the womb with a cheap suit and bad comb-over, Mostel gave a performance in the original so huge the screen could barely contain it. Physically and creatively, Lane can't begin to match Mostel's outsized Falstaffian dimensions. And where Wilder's performance gave his anxiety-prone accountant an otherworldly weirdness, Broderick plays the character as much more of a boilerplate geek.
But once the deliciously extravagant Busby Berkeley-style production numbers take over, the film hits its creative stride, and its leads sing and dance their way into making the roles their own. Between the rough start and an ending that lingers too long, there's a solid hour or so of terrific entertainment that serves as both a giddy tribute to Broadway musicals and a parody thereof. Thirty-seven years after Brooks declared war on taste and propriety, The Producers has lost its power to shock or offend, but it's retained its ability to amuse.