Hamlet 2

starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener and Joseph Julian Soris
written by Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming & directed by Andrew Fleming
Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content.

Failed actor Dana Marschz (Coogan) is a struggling, no-talent high-school drama teacher in Tucson who enthusiastically stages painfully-bad adaptations of Hollywood movies like Erin Brockovich featuring his two star (and only) students, flamboyant Rand (Skylar Astin) and chipper Epiphany (Phoebe Strole). The bane of his existence is freshman Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe), the drama critic for the school paper, who pans production after production. This year, though, things are different. Dana’s class is suddenly flooded with displaced Hispanic students, and he soon learns that the school’s drama program will be cancelled at the end of the term.

Seeking to inspire the rough bunch in the spirit of his heroes (Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds), and desperate to save drama, Dana follows his biggest critic’s advice and writes his own original work: a sequel to the greatest play in the English language. Once the principal gets wind of the production’s obscene and sacreligious elements, he sets out to shut it down, drawing the ACLU and the national media into what has become a community-wide controversy.

Mel Brooks famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” If that’s your cup of tea, the first three-quarters or so of Hamlet 2 will be right up your alley. It isn’t often that I see a main character’s life treated so sadistically by the writers who created him. Dana is a man who gets no respect from anyone with regards to anything; a man who has to take on a boarder so his alcoholic wife (who seems to stick around for the twisted pleasure of watching his train-wreck of a life) will no longer sell pot; a man who has been reduced to commuting to school on roller skates (really? you can’t even give him a bike?) and is subject to frequent, painful falls. His life is, in his own words, “a parody of a tragedy.” Much of the comedy is of the sort that you (or, at least, I) watch in horror through slits between your fingers.

Incidentally, I have to wonder what Tucson ever did to Brady and Fleming to deserve the treatment it gets here. I have to wonder how the movie is playing (or if it is playing) to audiences there. I suspect that, as it is used in the movie, “Tucson” is simply meant as a convenient metaphor for something else, like artistic stagnation, or the unwanted turns life so often takes. Still, that will be small comfort to the residents of a town that is visually referenced as the place where “dreams go to die.”

Among the few rays of light are the scenes between Dana and the young critic. The character is brilliant, and their exchanges are fresh and hilarious and not at all cringe-worthy. In fact, Hamlet 2 has a number of moments like this scattered sporadically throughout the opening acts, and they provoke just enough guffaws to tide the viewer over into happier territory. A lot of these moments belong to Coogan, who rescues his character from our pity and disgust by finding something in him that we can connect with and root for, even if that something is only his almost-unsinkable exuberance. It is no mean feat.

The movie is split up, play-like, into several acts (I believe five) which are announced via intertitle with quirky subheadings. Intertitles also precede a few (but not nearly all) scene transitions, with no discernible rhyme or reason except possibly because it is funny to see, for instance, “At the Sperm Bank” appear on the screen. A serious, deep-voiced narrator also steps in two or three times at random to move things along, though so unpredictably that the device feels intrusive. The voice of the narrator is not listed anywhere in the credits, but (according to the director) it is Coogan attempting his best impression of Jeremy Irons (and it is good).

In the end, the plot fails to gel in such a way as to suggest that a large number of scenes were left on the cutting-room floor (it’s either that or a severe deficiency in the script). Characters, including most of the students, seem to transform entirely off-screen. This probably has something to do with the fact that there are so many characters, really too many to juggle effectively, but I couldn’t shake the sense that there were a number of important developments that just didn’t work.

Nevertheless, if you can hang on through an hour and change, the presentation of the final production goes a long way towards redeeming everything the movie has put Dana (and us) through. Hamlet 2 (in a way that completely defies what we have been told about it) manages to be funny and campy, but also surprisingly poignant. It even, incredibly, manages to illustrate some of the seemingly-shallow tripe Dana was schilling out earlier about the vitality and transformative power of theater. Whether you believe that a man like Dana Marschz, with the meager resources at his disposal, could actually pull something like this off is more or less irrelevant. The play’s the thing (that we’re here for), and it’s a lot of fun.

~ by Jared on August 28, 2008.

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