Don’t get me wrong; I love Mel Brooks. I grew up watching the man’s movies. But something I have found over years of watching and re-watching is that Brooks is best when he’s reined in.
Look at it this way: what are Mel Brook’s best known classics? The story for Blazing Saddles is credited to Andrew Bergman, and in addition to Mel Brooks, he, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger worked on the screenplay. Young Frankenstein was helped along by the late, great Gene Wilder. Multiple talented people worked on these films with Brooks, and you can see that in the prevalence of the jokes that everyone remembers.
While I can’t be the most definitive here, I argue that it’s pretty easy to pick up on Brook’s style of comedy when he’s alone or unhindered.
Jewish people, genitalia, bodily functions, gay people being stereotypically campy. He tends to swing for the obvious jokes, the “cheap seats,” if you will, and across the country, 12-year-old boys titter with delight.
Haha…I said “titter.”
Which is not to say that these jokes can’t be humorous. Sometimes the funniest jokes are the over-the-top, silly, crazy, and crude ones when they’re used well. Mel Brooks just tends to use more of them than necessary, and when the gags aren’t that funny to begin with, this puts any given film only a few steps above Seltzer and Friedberg fare.
Which it shouldn’t, because clearly Brooks has more talent than that. One such example that is amazing – and more importantly Brooks’s own – is The Producers.
The 1968 film The Producers is a masterpiece of black comedy, in my opinion. It is the story of one has-been producer, played by Zero Mostel, who shamelessly uses everyone in his life to get ahead, whether they be old ladies looking for a fling with a younger man, or a naive, neurotic accountant, played by Gene Wilder, who simply doesn’t know any better. When the accountant stumbles upon the realization that a flop could produce more money than a hit, this man hatches a scheme to purposefully continue his recent bad Broadway luck and make off with his investors’ money, this time with a show that is guaranteed to fail.
Everything about Mostel’s character, Max Bialystock, is terrible, and the things he does are only really funny because they highlight what a selfish, manipulative louse he is…well, that and the fact that his unwitting partner in crime, Leo Bloom, is so tightly-wound that he overreacts to every little thing. Max is a scumbag, but he’s a very charismatic scumbag, and while he does get punished in the end, along with Leo, it’s amusing to see that he still hasn’t really learned his lesson. Likely, he’s going to keep on failing with “get rich quick” schemes, and dragging anyone else that he can down with him.
A lot of comedy – dark, mean-spirited, or otherwise – is based on one of two things: misery and a subversion of expectation. We, the audience, like to see people punished when they deserve it, but we also like to see general pain and frustration because it relieves some of ours. Why else do people watch shows where someone they’ve never even met does a stupid stunt and is clearly injured?
Maybe we tell ourselves that this person is stupid, and therefore deserves to be punished for thinking this would work. Whatever the justification, it’s probably a bit screwed up, but people still find it funny and cathartic.
Just by virtue of being a woman, I probably should be offended by the scene where Max Bialystock hires Ulla, a woman who can barely speak English, to be his office “secretary.” He refers to her as “a toy,” and tells her that dance and gyrating to music is what “work” is, just so that he can watch.
But when I find myself amused at that scene, I’m not laughing at the objectification of some poor, underprivileged woman; I’m laughing at the new depth of the main character’s depravity and douchebaggery that I just witnessed. I mean, what a creep! This just makes me want him to fail even more!
Dark humor is hard to explain to people, especially if it’s not their cup of tea, but the basic gist is this: sometimes laughing at the horrible things in life is what gets you through them.
Now, what about the musical and the remake of The Producers?
OH MY GOD, MEL BROOKS! IT’S LIKE YOU DIDN’T EVEN WATCH YOUR OWN DAMN MOVIE!
Aside from the delightful addition of Will Ferrell as Franz, the playwright who allows Max and Leo access to his Springtime for Hitler, nearly everything about the choices in both of these adaptations goes against the spirit of the original! Max and Leo are real friends? Wrong! Leo always hated his job and dreamed of following in Max’s footsteps? Wrong! Ulla comes to them both willingly, knowingly, and starts singing about the virtues of sexing yourself up to get ahead? Wrong! (But dark and screwed up. I will give it that.) Ulla then comes between these two good friends like Yoko Ono supposedly did with the Beatles?
This was not a brotherly road trip movie about two underdog guys working their way up to success, Mel Brooks! Where did you even get that from the original movie?
Nathan Lane is okay, but while he’s got some sliminess, he doesn’t pull off the same kind of character as Zero Mostel, and it’s clear now that he wasn’t meant to. Matthew Broderick is at his absolute worst “acting wise”; he clearly can’t transition naturally from being on a stage to being in front of a camera several feet away. Nothing he says or does makes any sense, even in the conversations he’s a part of. It’s less like he has some sort of condition (or is just bad under any kind of pressure) and more like he’s just a weirdo with delayed reaction time and a random blankie.
Seriously, watch the scene from the original back-to-back with the remake. Gene Wilder sells it. Matthew Broderick does not.
The remake’s solution to everything appears to be: add more gay jokes. Gay jokes! Get your gay jokes, here! How about them gay jokes?! The original movie had a few, sure, and they were only so funny there too, but it wasn’t an onslaught. The 2005 movie takes out the classic audition of LSD, who becomes hippy Hitler, and just gives the gay director the role because he acted stereotypically gay. I can understand that most people have never seen a real hippy from way back in the day, but even as a whippersnapper, I still found it hilarious.
As I said, Will Ferrell is good. He’s derivative of the original character while still making the role his own, and that’s cool. I personally think he was born to play people like this.
The bigger budget of the remake also allows for more to be going on in the musical within a musical, so that’s pretty good too.
But the original movie had great, punchy timing. The newer movie has awkward, slow timing, only to be relieved by scenes with Franz or the opening night of Springtime for Hitler itself. A last-minute conflict is thrown in when Leo flees the successful musical with Ulla on his arm, leaving Max to rot in jail. But don’t worry…he comes back…
Whoop dee do…
Then, pow! Happy ending! Friendship wins the day, and the two go on to produce hit after hit in the musical scene!
Give me a %$#&ing break.
Mel Brooks is a nice guy, and he’s made several good, funny movies, but I have no idea what he was thinking with this one. He had a decent film but apparently wasn’t satisfied with it, so he turned around and sucked all of the point, charm, and humor out of it. Would his other fans be okay with it if he did the same thing to Young Frankenstein? Or Space Balls?
Okay, I hope I didn’t give him any ideas with that one. I hope he’s telling a good joke and is in on it. But you know what I mean.
It’s annoying when someone makes a crappy remake of a movie you like, but it somehow feels even worse when the original maker, who should have plenty of creative control, makes choices that visibly, palpably detract from his initial vision. Maybe if he’d called it a “re-imagining”, I’d be more forgiving of its existence, but still. It doesn’t hold a candle to the 1968 version, and no, this is not nostalgia blindness. I didn’t even see the original until I was 20, and that was only after seeing the remake and not understanding why it was supposed to be so funny.
Bottom line: I think the remake is Scheme. Feel free to disagree, but that’s just how I feel.
The pictures in this article do not belong to me.