Hamlet 2 ***
When I first read an article about "Hamlet 2" back in January when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival I was instantly attracted to its title. A musical sequel to Hamlet? What fun! And then I read that Steve Coogan was the star, a British actor that I have enjoyed for a few years ever since I saw his short with Alfred Molina in "Coffee and Cigarettes." Both of these forces merged to form some kind of anticipation from me. Sadly "Hamlet 2" was not the comedy masterpiece that I had hoped for, but it is certainly an entertaining film, and a nice ending for the summer movie season. It also completes the quartet of R-rated comedies of "Step Brothers," "Pineapple Express," and "Tropic Thunder." I'm a bit pleased with Focus Features for giving it a moderately wide release (and failing, sadly), as it might give Coogan some kind of notice in America along with his memorably explosive appearance in "Tropic Thunder."
Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor who worked in commercials for awful products ("I'm having a herpes outbreak. Right now. . .but you'd never know it. Thanks Herpicol!") After not getting work for a while he became a high school drama teacher is Tucson, Arizona, where dreams go to die. The drama elective isn't very popular, and every year Dana takes a popular movie and writes parts for his two "suck ups" Rand (whose sexuality is often called into question) and Epiphany. Every year the play is panned in the school paper by Noah Sapperstein, whose small size isn't a problem with Dana goes to him for advice. This year Dana learns two things. One, that many of the other electives have been cancelled, causing two dozen minorities to be forced to take drama. And two, that this is the final year of drama, as budget cuts are causing it to be cancelled. Noah tells the desperate Dana to put on the best play he possibly could, and Dana finished with Hamlet 2, a musical sequel to the Shakespeare play which is really a metaphor for his relationship with his father. Everyone basically agrees it is a terrible idea, especially since nearly every single major characters dies at the end of the original play.
In the play, Hamlet has a time machine which he uses, along with the help of Jesus Christ, to go back in time and save those he loves. But its the un-PC content within the story that end up causing the problems, and not the fact that Dana is touching what is considered to be the greatest play ever written. Its the fact that Jesus is considered to be a stud muffin who turns on all the girls (leading into the plays musical number "Rock Me Sexy, Jesus"). It's the fact that Satan is French kissing the President. And its the opening scene, where Hamlet, Jesus, and Hilary Clinton all come out of the time machine having some kind of a three way. This leads to the interference of Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), who is hired to ensure that Hamlet 2 ends up getting performed, as the entire town is suddenly in an uproar over its content.
Steve Coogan is very funny as Dana, and he goes appropriately over the top in the role. His facial expressions and his excitement about acting and Hollywood that are impossible not to laugh at. Especially when he encounters Elisabeth Shue, who has quit acting and decided to take up nursing. And it also happens to be that Elisabeth Shue is Dana's favorite actress of all time. But it is clear that Coogan put an extreme amount of energy into the part, and it really does show. He carries the film for its first two thirds, and than the final act (which is pretty much the play itself) is quite funny unto itself strictly through concept.
The first hour is loaded with flaws, many of which I was able to see past simply because the film was extremely entertaining. One of these is the mention of Dana's home life, and his marriage to Brie (Catherine Kenner) and them having a roommate, Gary (David Arquette.) Kenner is her usual caustic and witty self, but her character is somewhat not needed, sans for the scene where she leaves Dana-the films only foray into seriousness. It is this serious scene that ends up making the performance of Hamlet 2 more than a completely random and insane segment, and we can understand how troubled Dana was in the past. Arquette is completely useless, and he is actually given a role where he really doesn't need to do much other than just stand there in the corner and be silent. I did like the nabs the film made towards the inspirational teacher genre, which Dana is always trying to be, citing films like "Dead Poets Society" or "Mr. Holland's Opus." And how the tough kid in the class (Octavio, who for most of the film Dana thinks is named Heywood Kablowme) comes from a very intelligent family and has gained early acceptance to Brown. It's small moments of brilliance mildly scattered about the first hour that held the film together along with Coogan's performance. Not all the jokes here are winners, and at times it gets a bit to slapsticky for the material, but it does hold attention.
Also to note, the film does not only get better written as it moves along, with after the first fifty minutes it feels like its in the hands of a different director. In the first half we get quite a bit of short shots, framed with a single persons head in the shot, very much like a sitcom. It isn't until the play gets put into motion does director Andrew Fleming play around with tracking shots (for which there are quite a few during a choral version of "Maniac") and more trickier images. It just becomes a much better film as it moves along, although I wish the final scene had a more stronger punch (despite ending in the most sensible way I can imagine). But all in all, despite many imperfections "Hamlet 2" is an entertaining comedy, and hopefully will be a vehicle for Coogan to get more notice in the U.S.