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"The Producers"

Directed by Susan Stroman, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Uma

Thurman. Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks. 134 minutes. PG-13. A Universal Release.

By John D. Delmar

The movie musical is dead.

Has there been a truly successful movie musical since Julie Andrews yodeled in a dirndl, twirling in the Alps decades ago? Can a moldy corpse be brought back from the grave? Mel Brooks joins a handful of other hopeful souls, nostalgic for the glorious American art form, trying to breathe life into dust.

"The Producers" is a musical about a musical, a self-referential backstage peek at the messy process of putting on a show. This isn't MGM in the Forties, and we aren't dealing with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. This is a rodent's eye view of Shubert Alley. It's nasty and mean spirited at times, full of creaky stereotypes and stale jokes. It is at least partly redeemed by creative choreography and a natural chemistry between the two leading men, who have performed together long enough to have become the new Lunt and Fontanne of the Broadway stage-- or at least the Abbott and Costello.

The movie started as a film, became a hit Broadway musical, and was turned back into a movie. Perhaps the next stages are action figures and a Saturday morning cartoon? The premise is simple-- a sleazy producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) learns from his milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) that a flop might earn more than a hit. A flop show doesn't have to pay back its investors. The producers (Lane and Broderick) must therefore find a sure disaster, raise lots of money for it, produce it and watch it die.

Producing the flop and finding a terrible playwright and dreadful crew provide the comic premise.

But Brooks goes for the cheap and tired laughs: a dumb blonde Swedish secretary, lame little old ladies, mincing queen-for-a-day gays, Irish brogue cops. The only obvious retrograde stereotype we are spared are shuffling Amos-and-Andy blacks - and that is because THIS New York has no blacks (or Latinos). There is a gay Indian, however.

This is a "period" film, and Brooks, who started writing comedy in the 50's for TV programs like Sid Caesar's hilarious "Show of Shows," accurately reflects the style and humor of the time.

There is a nudge-nudge attempt at making fun of the period, but too often the film's tired cliches are just ... tired cliches. So we are expected to laugh at the sexy secretary who can't wait to sleep with the boss, the swishy director in a dress, the prim but horny little old ladies.

Overacting and chewing the scenery is practically required of the leads, who perform as if they are mugging to the fifth balcony even when they are in close-up. Lane channels Zero Mostel's over the top wild man, leaping about the stage like a hyperkinetic dancing Grizzly. Matthew Broderick's meek accountant resembles his prior tightly-wound pipsqueaks, from Ferris Bueller on.

Both lack the repressed madness, fire and energy Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel brought to the original film roles, the feeling Wilder or Mostel might at any moment explode into a mass of spontaneous combustion. There are times, however, when Lane and Broderick bounce one-liners back and forth like seasoned Borscht belt tummelers.

Busty blond Ulla, acrobatically performed by Uma, sets feminism back fifty years or so, combining elements of the Fifties sex kittens Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield with the athletic prowess of Olga Korbut. Uma seems to get a kick out of being worshipped like a

Buddhist goddess, but at other times looks like she'd rather just be severing heads or dancing with John Travolta. Jon Lovitz is perfect as an ogre boss who traps his employees in accountants' hell, a Kafkaesque room of clacking clones working like galley slaves. Will Ferrell's Nazi is as flat as an Allied war poster, but his obedient, fascist pigeons are clever.

Mel Brooks is the producer, based on a screenplay by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by ... Mel Brooks. And he makes a few cameo appearances, too. The only jobs he apparently missed were selling popcorn and cleaning the theaters, although you might look for a short guy with a Brooklyn accent at the concession stand. Thank goodness Brooks turned to Susan Stroman for direction and choreography.

Stroman is a genius at choreography, and does the best she can as director to burst out of the cluttered gag-filled Bialystock office and dark "Springtime" theater. She breaks out of the box for a bus tour of New York, gliding down a 1950's Times Square, going by Sardi's, taking Lane and Broderick through Central Park and in front of the Bethesda fountain, and doing a tappity-tap Busby Berkeley tribute in front of the Plaza with blue-haired old ladies who use walkers but move like Rockettes. The city is full of promise and potential, the sort of place a shlubby accountant can dream of becoming a Broadway producer, even if he has to lie and cheat to do it.

Despite the singing and dancing and enormous effort, this isn't the movie to revive the moribund movie musical. Brooks isn't Rogers and Hammerstein; he's not even Rogers. Stroman tries hard, but it is hard to whip stale material into something fresh. Despite Bialystock's protestations, neither "Springtime for Hitler" nor "The Producers" is likely to be boffo box office.

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