When Steve Coogan’s character reads a bad review of his latest high school play (a two hander version of Erin Brockovich) in the high school newspaper and yells, ‘I feel like I’m being raped… in the face!’, I knew that Hamlet 2 was a funny film. When one of the songs in the film’s titular Shakespearian sequel ends up being called ‘Raped in the Face’ and presents a key insight into Coogan’s character, I knew I was watching one of 2008’s most hilarious comedies.
We meet Steve Coogan’s character, Dana Marschz (no one in the film can pronounce it either) in a series of clips from his work as a professional actor – a Jack LaLanne juicer commercial, a spot on Xena, a herpes commercial – before finding out that he has given up acting and now teaches drama at West Mesa High School in Tuscon Arizona (which, the narrator tells us, is where dreams go to die). Dana’s drama class is small – a closeted gay boy and an evangelical girl – but when asbestos forces the portable classrooms, where all the lower class and ‘ethnic’ students are corralled, Dana and his pets have to deal with twenty plus new classmates. Just as Dana begins to get through to these kids, the school decides to defund drama; in a last ditch effort to save the class, Dana and the students decide to put on a new play by Dana, Hamlet 2, a sequel to Shakespeare’s classic that’s much less of a bummer. How much less of a bummer? It’s a musical, and it features Hamlet in a time machine stopping the deaths of all the characters in the original play, as well as appearances by Satan, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Snoopy from Peanuts and a sexy Jesus in a wifebeater who texts on his cell phone.
Andrew Fleming (co-writer/director) and Pam Brady (co-writer) have taken the basic conceits of the ‘inspirational teacher’ movies and turned them on their head in a very South Park way – which is no shock, as Brady wrote Team America and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Marschz is a delusional, optimistic fool, and if he does reach these kids it’s because they feel bad for him, not because he’s inspired them.
Coogan delivers a broad and unhinged performance that is the center of the film. Watching the movie, especially the saggy second act, I wondered if Hamlet 2 had once had a more conventional script, one that focused more on the kids in the class and their struggles. If so, I’m glad that the focus has been moved almost exclusively on to Coogan; Dana Marschz is so blinkered that he can’t see that his marriage to Brie (Catherine Keener) is falling apart, but he does manage to spot Elizabeth Shue working as a nurse (she’s sick of the Hollywood life and has decided to become a Tuscon nurse. She’s one of the film’s terrific running gags). Coogan is unparalleled at playing boobs, and here he’s got free reign. The character may be broader than some people like, but I was happy to embrace such big comedy; as much as I love the Apatow clan’s character based comedy, I also like the occasional dose of flat out over the top goofiness. Keener is acidic as Brie, delivering some of the meanest line deliveries in years. David Arquette, meanwhile, impresses with his stoicism as the couple’s dimwitted boarder.
Besides an appearance by Amy Poehler as an ACLU lawyer who tries to stop the school board from shutting down the increasingly pornographic and sacrilegious Hamlet 2, I’ve listed most of the great performances in the film. The students are okay, but none stand out wildly. Besides a weak second act (which can possibly be fixed by new distributors Focus Features), it’s the lack of a breakout side character that hurts Hamlet 2 the most. I wanted one more character who could come in and steal a couple of scenes, a Danny McBride type of role.
Hamlet 2 is filmed in a mostly bright, flat way that feels like a legitimate teen high school comedy; it’s that brightness and flatness that helps the movie’s tone feel so jarringly separate from what we’re seeing, and I loved that. Hamlet 2 is actually a pretty dark comedy, finding humor in racism, child sexual abuse and alcoholism, topics I always have found gut-busting. Again, watching the film I wondered what the genesis of this project was – had Fleming (who directed Dick and Nancy Drew) started with a much more mainstream, PG-13 movie and then had Pam Brady come in? Had the film always been intended to be a hard R rated cynicismfest? It’s the feeling of two movies colliding that makes Hamlet 2 feel a little disjointed at times but at other times that disjointed aspect can leave you guessing as to what will come next.
The better part of a week after seeing it, Hamlet 2 is still making me laugh. Focus’ 10 million dollar deal for the film, one of the biggest in Sundance history, indicates that they think they have a mainstream film on their hands; I’m not as certain, but I do know for sure that this is a movie that’s going to generate a million quotes and a billion references in the years to come. If the mainstream doesn’t pick up on Hamlet 2, it’s most certainly going to be a bona fide cult classic.