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Hamlet 2   B-

Focus Features

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrew Fleming
Writers: Pam Brady, Andrew Fleming
Cast: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, Melonie Diaz, Joseph Julian Soria, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Elisabeth Shue.

Review by Rob Vaux

Every drama class has someone like Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). He's the guy so monumentally in love with the theater that he doesn't see how untalented he is. He goes to bed dreaming of Nathan Detroit, only to end up playing Chorus Gangster #3... a role he performs with disquieting gusto. He's first to arrive at every rehearsal and the last to leave after the set is struck. He gives everyone inappropriate hugs as a part of "cast bonding" -- even people who actively hate his guts. He babbles on about Stanislavsky and refers to acting as "the craft," despite the fact that his tastes run to Andrew Lloyd Webber and that horrendous dinner-theater version of The Sound of Music. He is the Ed Wood of thespians, too blinded by the stars in his eyes to realize that he really should be doing something else.

Hamlet 2's central comedic conceit is to take a look at this guy after the cold, hard world has spent twenty-five years stomping his dreams into the curb. He's in his forties now, helming a Tucson high school drama department which consists of exactly two budding actors and a bunch of unwilling recruits who think he's a moron. He roller skates to work, he dresses in South American ponchos, and he writes incredibly derivative stage adaptations of middling Hollywood Oscar-bait like Erin Brockovich. But dammit, he loves the theater, and if middling Hollywood Oscar-bait has taught him nothing else, it's that an inspirational teacher can truly work miracles. If only he were any better at teaching than he was at acting.

That, in essence, is the big joke. Like a lot of comedies this summer, the high concept seems to be the only selling point, and while it brims with marvelous possibilities, comparatively few of them are realized. Co-writer/director Andrew Fleming fleshes out the idea intermittently -- with Marschz squaring off against his cheerfully demeaning wife (Catharine Keener), the school's "little kangaroo rat" of a theater critic (Shea Pepe), and an evil principal (Marshall Bell) who wants to shut the drama program down -- but even with first-rate talent like Keener, they rarely generate the laughs for which they are intended.

Luckily for the film, Coogan is almost enough to get it done on his own. He understands how figures like Marschz never seem to care how embarrassing they are, and yet how deeply the slings and arrows of constant criticism can affect them. There is real pain bubbling beneath his unflappable sunshine. He doesn't respond to the catcalls because he's heard them all so many times before that they've become part of the background. Not only does Coogan mine enough laughs from that to make up for the film's other miscues, but he quietly invests Marschz with sufficient sympathy to let us feel at least part of his pain.

Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady back him up with a singularly brilliant third act. Facing the death of theater at his school, Marschz resolves to save it by writing and staging the greatest play ever -- a sequel to Hamlet in which Jesus Christ shows up in a time machine and allows the Danish Prince to save everyone who died in Part One. It's abominable, of course... but it's also protected by the First Amendment, which creates a massive scandal and delivers a feisty ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler) to defend Marschz's constitutional rights. The out-of-left-field notion reflects Hamlet 2's terminal meandering, as specific genre parody balloons awkwardly into a larger social critique. But it's also extremely funny, especially when musical numbers like the much-hyped "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" parade across the screen. It's a pity that more of the movie can't capture that loopy sense of glee.

Along with Coogan, however, it manages to save Hamlet 2 from its own missed opportunities. The inspirational teacher parody only barely holds water and much of the surrounding material is limp, but at its heart, it carries a very amusing character and an expression of his creative hubris that's worth paying to see. The sheer absurdity of it all allows one to forgive the fact that it never truly realizes its potential. Great comedy it's not, but in Hamlet 2's case, it does all right just by scoring the odd (dare I say palpable?) hit.

Review published 08.30.2008.

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