Hamlet 2

(2008) ** 1/2 R
94 min. Focus Features. Director: Andrew Fleming. Cast: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin, Amy Poehler, Phoebe Strole.


It would be nice to report that the first starring vehicle for the immensely talented British comic actor Steve Coogan is an unqualified success, but Hamlet 2 never gets in the satiric groove. In skewering the easy prey of inspirational teacher movies and "let’s put on a show" musicals, the script by Pam Brady and director Andrew Fleming projects a sense of relief at not having to try too hard. As in so many comedies today, the onus falls on the on-screen talent to punch up mediocre material.

So more power to Coogan, whose best shot at Stateside stardom comes with the change-of-pace role of Dana Marschz: an effusive American high-school acting teacher with little understanding of why people don’t respond to his asinine artistic visions. At Tucson, Arizona's West Mesa High School, Marschz directs stage adaptations of pop movies (Erin Brockovich, Mississippi Burning). Of course, they're perfectly atrocious, which is evident to everyone but Marschz and his two prize drama students, Rand Posin and Epiphany Sellars (Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole, both formerly of Broadway's teen-angst musical Spring Awakening). When the principal and school board conspire to put the drama program on the chopping block, Marschz spirals into despair, even begging his nemesis (the "West Mesa Tattler"'s pint-sized drama critic) for advice. Trying to be helpful, the kid offers, "Sometimes something can be so bad it starts to turn good again."

That's a subtlety lost on Marschz, but he does listen when the critic suggests doing something original. Marschz, a born loser, drags this insight into his artistic blindspot. He hammers out a script for "Hamlet 2," a musical sequel to arguably the most famous play ever written. Then he sets to work selling the concept to his students. Rand and Epiphany leap on board, but the others, described by Epiphany as "ethnics," need more convincing. It's one of the film's best comic twists on the Dangerous Minds-style teacher movie that when parents object to Marschz's teaching, it's not because of a lack of understanding of what he's doing, but rather a hyper-understanding of his idiocy and incompetence.

Still, it's difficult to invest in a story that fosters such a strong sense of unreality (and doesn't compensate with razor-sharp absurdism). The result feels like warmed-over John Waters dementia. Fine support comes from the young players, as well as veterans Catherine Keener as Marschz's numb wife, David Arquette as their roommate, Elizabeth Shue as herself, and Amy Poehler as a sharky, hilariously profane ACLU lawyer. But it's Coogan's show, in a grotesquely overstated performance that makes sense for the character but isn't always easy to watch (he may also be hampered in the fine details by having to put on the American accent).

The perkily deluded Marschz is a character with many facets: his failed acting career (high point? an appearance on Xena: Warrior Princess); his seven-year sobriety; his infertility (which he addresses by beginning to wear loose-fitting caftans); and a crippling emotional grudge against his father, an unsupportive molester. "My life is a parody of a tragedy," he moans. In a way, it's hard not to root for such a desperate underdog and one with such obvious sincerity ("Theatre has the power to transform the audience. I believe that"), but on the other hand, Marschz has such a tin ear for drama that his victory would—in real life, anyway—be everyone else's loss. Still, who wouldn't want, perversely, to see "Hamlet 2," a guaranteed train wreck in which Marschz himself plays the key role of "Sexy Jesus"? It's the cherry on top for a teacher who has proven his total lack of boundaries with students and art alike.

/content/films/3194/3.jpgThe humor is definitely hit and miss here, so even the big finale shouldn’t be overhyped. Despite the presence of Sexy Jesus, it’s not the second coming. Brady, a South Park writer, seems to want to coast on comic outrageousness. As hilarious as that can be (Coogan bleating, "I have so much anger. I feel like I've been raped in the face!"), it's not enough to make a full-bodied, full-length narrative. Expect a pleasant diversion, the best moments of which come out of left field. Marschz's questionable lesson "It doesn't matter how much talent we lack, as long as we have enthusiasm" mirrors the film's own questionable entertainment value, with plenty of talent not quite making up for lack of effort.

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