THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

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There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the new, twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.

 

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FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986) – A non-appreciation by an ex-teacher

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I think you have to be or have been a teacher to feel as though John Hughes’ movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is like a student scraping his nails across your blackboard for 90 minutes. When this movie was first released, I happened to see it on a week where a student came tardy to my class, cussed me out when I called him on it, and then had his mother phone and tell me that I was overreacting [for doing what was expected of me] and tell me that she was praying for me. By the time I finished watching the movie, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who was intended as a figure of fun, was a very sympathetic character to me.
Anyway, Matthew Broderick plays the title role, an insufferable youngster who appears to have an angel of God at his side. Ferris concocts elaborate schemes for playing hooky from school, yet he manages to endear himself to everyone except Mr. Rooney, who can never quite catch Ferris in the act, and his sister Jennie (Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing), who is justifiably annoyed at Ferris’ liberties.
One fine spring day, Ferris again fools his parents into thinking he is on Death’s doorstep. When they leave for work, Ferris browbeats his downtrodden buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck, later of TV’s “Spin City”) into stealing his father’s prized 1961 Ferrari, hijacking Ferris’s girlfriend (Mia Sara) from school and going on a joyride.

 

The angel-of-God analogy is particularly apt because the movie seems a latter-day version of deus ex machina. And never has a movie seemed so stagy. When Ferris starts talking to the camera (presaging similarly self-conscious ’90s movies and TV shows), expounding his theories on life and skipping school, one half-expects to read “Based on a play by Neil Simon” in the credits.
What a great combination — the self-righteousness of John Hughes and the Broadway smarminess of Matthew Broderick. Two minds without a single thought.

And the film in constantly at odds with what it tries to tell us. At one point, Ferris tells us that you’ll never get anywhere by kissing people’s hindquarters. Yet he can’t get anywhere without sucking up to people or manipulating them for his selfish whims.

He also complains about his parents being weird. The poor kid — all his parents have ever given him are everything he wants, and more attention than his sister can hope to receive.

And how is all of this massive manipulation possible? Because Hughes sets up cardboard characters and emotions. Mr. Rooney is essentially Wile E. Coyote, forever chasing the Road Runner in vain. Ferris’s parents are vapid dummies who don’t care much about anything. And Ferris is supposedly made lovable by such acts as his hammy performance to get out of school (an old bit when it was used in E.T.) and his lip-syncing to a rock song (which, after Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Rodney Dangerfield in Easy Money, was well on its way to become a modern-day movie cliché).

All of the performances are execrable, except for Ruck as Cameron, the put-upon friend. When Cameron vows to take a stand against his dad, the scene almost works, despite its utter gravity, because Cameron has been such a likable dolt up until then. If only we could see a movie about a teenager like him, instead of this self-indulgent vehicle about a self-indulgent brat.

When John Hughes was asked how he prepares his scripts, he said, “I never start with the jokes. I look at an issue and try to find the story in it…To me, Animal House was a character movie.” That’s funnier than anything in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.