It's a movie based on a play based on a movie.
The Producers began as a zany 1968 Mel Brooks comedy starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as con men determined to profit from staging the worst show in Broadway history. Spiced up with more than a dozen songs and heavily choreographed production numbers, the story became a full-blown, Tony Award-worthy musical in 2001. It also got a lot racier. That popular live version is now a song-studded feature film which hopes to capitalize on the genre's big-screen rebirth (Chicago, Moulin Rouge!, Phantom of the Opera, Rent) with principals Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprising their roles as, respectively, has-been producer Max Bialystock and neurotic accountant Leo Bloom.
Once a king in New York's theater district, Max is a laughing stock, an unapologetic shyster whose scruples are fading even faster than his talent. His productions often open and close on the same night, and he has been reduced to playing gigolo to gray-haired nymphomaniacs in order to fund new shows. Enter Leo, a mousy number-cruncher who dreams of becoming a Broadway producer. When Leo casually floats the notion that creative bookkeeping could help a flop net more money than a hit, Max hatches a plan to raise $2 million from his aged clientele. He figures he can promise dozens of investors 30 percent or 40 percent of the profits each and still walk away with a fortune if there are no profits to divvy up. Leo's conscience won't let him buy into the scheme ... at first. But soon the pair is looking feverishly for the most tasteless script, incompetent director and worst actors in Manhattan.
Max and Leo settle on Springtime for Hitler, an insulting musical love letter to Der Fuhrer. It's a disaster waiting to happen. After all, this is 1959 and the wounds of WWII are still quite fresh, which may explain why Franz Liebkind, the paranoid Nazi playwright behind the script, fears arrest and trusts no one but his beloved carrier pigeons. To direct this mess Max enlists Roger De Bris (whose motto is "keep it gay"), a raging queen with an equally frolicsome support staff. In the lead female role, the producers cast Ulla, an inexperienced Swedish bombshell willing to show off her body and do menial chores around the office. Just when everything is about to go wonderfully wrong, their plan takes an unexpected turn.
Max hits his knees and prays selfishly, "Oh lord, dear lord ... I want that money!" When a once-resolute Leo decides to participate in Max's scheme, Max tells God, "Boy, you are good."
Max makes it his business to sleep with randy old ladies for profit. He claims to have over 100 in his black book and refers to them by pet names such as "Hold Me, Touch Me," "Feel Me," "Pinch Me" and "Lick Me." During one creepy encounter, the woman wants to engage in a kinky role-playing game. A nude statue of Hermes leaves nothing to the imagination. And the language is atrocious with explicit jokes or lyrics about lust, erections, oral sex, penis size, masturbation, sadomasochism, gay sex, erotic positions, a threesome, lesbianism, ejaculation and sex crimes.
Elsewhere, chorus girls wear very skimpy costumes that show a lot of thigh and cleavage. During the song "Springtime for Hitler" they prance about naked except for token items covering breasts and crotches. In another number, women wear revealing dresses made of only strands of pearls. Ulla dances seductively for Max and Leo while singing "When You Got It, Flaunt It," a song about a girl's duty to "show da boys your birthday suit" ("People tell you modesty's a virtue/But in the theater modesty can hurt you"). This single gal's daily schedule includes "sex at 11 a.m." Upon learning that Leo refused to have premarital sex with Ulla, a supposedly sagacious judge condemns chastity by saying, "What a schmuck." Ulla and Leo kiss passionately.
Roger is gay man partial to women's clothing. His occasionally catty "common-law assistant" is equally out and proud, as are the other live-in members of his creative team (one of whom sports an unreal bulge at his crotch). Come-hither looks and sly double entendres are the rule with these guys. An entire musical number plays off of the two meanings of the word "gay." When Roger fills in as Hitler on opening night, it's his effeminate portrayal of Der Fuhrer that convinces an appalled crowd that the play they're watching must be a send-up.
A number of times characters slap one another, usually as part of a slapstick dance routine or because someone is hysterical. Leo and Max get into a knock-down fight. We hear Liebkind falling down stairs twice (on each occasion he breaks a leg). The German playwright goes berserk and fires a Luger at Max and Leo, trashing their office but not drawing blood. The despondent Nazi then turns the pistol on himself, but nothing happens when he pulls the trigger. Max tells him to unleash his misdirected aggression on the actors and gives him money for bullets before Leo steps in.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A man chews on a cigar. People celebrate with champagne. Leo fantasizes that chorus girls are pouring him bubbly, and he says he wants to "drink champagne until I puke." Liebkind sings about consuming schnapps.
Since voicing Timon and Simba in Disney's animated The Lion King, Broderick and Lane have teamed up for The Producers on stage and screen and, even more recently, begun a sold-out run as Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (which generated a record $21.5 million in advance ticket sales). It's easy to understand their appeal. They're great together. Whether battling over Leo's security blanket or for the affections of a leggy blonde, they put on a clinic when it comes to harnessing comic energy and developing crack-shot timing, biting cues so hard they leave teeth marks.
I've always loved musical theater. In fact, I've enjoyed doing musical theater. So while I'm no stranger to stage productions, it was very disappointing to find the sexual content (that already existed) in Brooks' story cranked way up here—especially the playful treatment of homosexuality by flamboyantly gay characters. The audience found the steady flow of crass innuendo hysterical. For me it spoiled an otherwise colorful, artfully done film. So while most everything about The Producers is top-drawer, it's that extreme, sexual repartee (which feels anachronistic for 1959, even in the theater district) that brings the curtain down on the whole production.
In a pivotal scene, Leo forsakes his better judgment and, tired of seeing lesser men enjoy worldly spoils, elects to become Max's partner in crime. His motivation? "I want everything I've seen in the movies!" Indeed, movies—including this one—can be a potent tool for suggesting what is normal or desirable in the world.