Director : Andrew Fleming
Screenplay : Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Steve Coogan (Dana Marschz), Catherine Keener (Brie Marschz), Joseph Julian Soria (Octavio), Skylar Astin (Rand Posin), Phoebe Strole (Epiphany Sellars), Melonie Diaz (Ivonne), Arnie Pantoja (Vitamin J), Michael Esparza (Chuy), Natalie Amenula (Yolanda), Marshall Bell (Principal Rocker), David Arquette (Gary), Elisabeth Shue (Elisabeth Shue), Amy Poehler (Cricket Feldstein), Shea Pepe (Noah Sapperstein), Marco Rodríguez (Mr. Marquez)
Hamlet 2 is a feature-length joke about the silliness of dreaming big that, in the end, reifies the dream. Its main character is Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), an endearingly inept former actor who traded in a mediocre career of appearing in infomercials and STD ads for a gig teaching drama in a Tucscon, Arizona, high school, which the film’s narration informs us is the place where “dreams go to die.” Dana’s idea is that, if he can’t live his own dream of being a great actor, perhaps he can inspire others to, and in this respect he fails even harder, attracting only two students to his class, both of whom are standard-issue high school drama stereotypes: Rand (Skylar Astin), the gay teen who hasn’t quite come to terms with his sexuality, and Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), the over-eager drama queen who, despite her emphatic desire to be inclusive, is still nervous around “ethnics.” When the school’s temp buildings are deemed unsafe, Dana’s class is given an influx of new blood in the form of the school’s “bad seeds,” almost all of whom are Hispanic and all of whom couldn’t care less about drama. Thus, Dana’s sense of mission is heightened, even as his attempts to inspire become all the more absurd.
Absurdity is everything in Hamlet 2, and the film rides comfortably on the shoulders of the British TV star Steve Coogan, who we saw earlier this summer as the in-over-his-head newbie director in Tropic Thunder who winds up in pieces. Something similar happens to Dana, whose enthusiasm for the dramatic is matched only by his unbridled love of the kinds of movies that are routinely written off as disposable Hollywood cheese. Perhaps assuming that the film’s audience wouldn’t recognize cheesy theater pieces, cowriters Pam Brady (South Park) and Andrew Fleming (the latter of whom directed) outfit Dana with an impassioned love of inspirational teacher movies like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Dangerous Minds (1995), which he speaks of in the kind of reverent tones reserved for literary greats. His idea of grand drama is staging these movies as plays, which draw crowds that you can almost count on one hand; he’s a failure, but Coogan invests the character with such wonderfully hammy bravado that you love him for it. When he goes toe-to-toe with the school’s drama critic, a pint-sized hardliner who looks all of 10 but talks like a college philosophy major, we he views it as a genuine showdown of dramatic acumen (these scenes are among the film’s funniest). With his big, wide grin, foppish page-boy cut, and unrelentingly cheery demeanor that is given a hint of absurdist gravitas via his use of overly floral language, Dana is a deliriously misguided soul whose every idea is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Which is how he ends up penning Hamlet 2, his sequel to the Bard’s greatest work that he believes will be the key to saving the school’s doomed drama program. “Doesn’t everybody die at the end of the first one?” his less-than-supportive wife (Catherine Keener) asks, but Dana already has the answer: a time machine. If that sounds ridiculous, it’s just the tip of the iceberg; Dana’s play is a cavalcade of the bizarre, the profane, and the downright sacrilegious, and if Hamlet 2 (the movie, not the play-within-the-movie) has a major weakness, it is that we never understand why Dana would write something so provocative. For someone whose tastes lean toward Erin Brockovich (2000) and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) as deep drama, it is a bit surprising that he would come up with something so deliriously lurid as Hamlet 2, which is like a John Waters/Luis Buñuel co-production scored by Andrew Lloyd Webber and staged by the psychopath who created that awful Broadway musical at the end of Stayin’ Alive (1983). If the movie was true to the character, Hamlet 2 would be a soggy, sentimental bore, rather than a jumping musical with industrial-postmodern sets and the kind of reckless abandon that makes the inclusion of the immediately memorable show-stopper “Rocky Me Sexy Jesus” seem nothing less than appropriate.
There are points at which Hamlet 2 glides almost effortlessly on its ridiculous premise, but there are too many moments when it crashes against material that makes you go “Huh?” For example, there is never any explanation for why the kids in Dana’s class ever take to his idea of drama. It just happens, which makes one think that a scene got left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps this is Brady and Fleming’s idea of parodying Dana’s favorite film genre, but it feels lazy. Similarly, a subplot involving Elizabeth Shue playing a version of herself who has rejected shallow Hollywood for a nursing career has no point or destination, and that doesn’t even account for the missed opportunity of dredging up an ’80s actress who has been genuinely M.I.A. for years (while Shue hasn’t exactly been in the middle of things since her Oscar nomination for Leaving Las Vegas back in 1996, she has been quietly working on a consistent basis). Some jokes just flat-out flounder, like an ACLU lawyer played by Amy Poehler constant barking that she’s married to a Jew and the inclusion of the Tucson Gay Men’s Choir as part of the play, the joke of which seems to be little more than the idea of a gay men’s choir in Tucson. Yet, even with these stumbling blocks, it’s hard not to like Hamlet 2, much like it’s hard not to like its befuddled hero, whose resistance to the constant failures in his life are testament to the power of the will over reality.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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