Directed by: Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew)
Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria, Elisabeth Shue, David Arquette
There are occasions when I go into a film hoping for it to be fantastic. Of course, raised expectations are the shortest path to disappointment, but sometimes one (particularly in this profession) has to get even the tiniest bit enthusiastic about a film—especially after weeks of such films as The Longshots, Fly Me to the Moon and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, not to mention College looming on the horizon. Lately, Hamlet 2 has been that film for me, a movie that—on paper at least, with its intriguing central concept and nice-looking trailer—gave me a slight ray of hope that a really good comedy could come out this year. And while Hamlet 2 has flashes of being the hilarious, intelligent satire theaters need right now, it never quite delivers.
The movie’s main problem is what should’ve been its biggest asset: its general premise. Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder) plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor (we see him starring in commercials for herpes medication and infomercials for Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer) with a failing marriage. Dana has turned into a lowly high-school drama teacher, reduced to putting on adaptations of popular Hollywood films, like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning, with the two kids who’ll take his class. It’s not until Dana finds out that—due to budget cuts—the drama department will be shut down that he decides to stage a creation of his very own, a sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Never mind that everyone dies at the end of Hamlet, Dana has a device, involving Hamlet himself hitching a ride in a time machine with Jesus. It’s only due to Dana’s complete ineptitude and utter lack of tact that the play becomes an unintentionally offensive and controversial piece of art.
And with that general foundation, there are any number of directions Andrew Fleming and cowriter Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) could’ve gone under the guise of satire—from what really constitutes art to what happens when you have a dream but lack the talent to obtain it and are too stupid to quit. And while these subjects are touched upon, neither is examined with any depth. This isn’t to say Hamlet 2 is a movie in need of revealing any great truths, but some sort of point to it all would’ve been nice, instead it just teases the audience with flashes of depth.
Regardless, the actual staging of Hamlet 2 presents the film’s biggest challenge. Throughout the movie, we’re given bits and pieces of what happens in the play, from a scene involving Satan French-kissing the president to the inclusion of Dick Cheney and Snoopy. There’s so much buildup to the film’s big climax and the grand spectacle of this magnificent, wildly bad-taste theater performance that it’s ultimately a letdown. Sure, we get a Grease-style show tune about the sex appeal of Christ, but in the end, it’s tepid (especially when you consider the play staged at the end of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998)). And it’s probably only shockingly offensive and outrageous to people who’ve never laid eyes on a Ken Russell picture (which, admittedly, is probably an unfortunate number).
But when the movie does work (and it occasionally does), it’s all because of Coogan, whose Dana Marschz is the last word in buffoonery. It would be simple—as some critics have—to lump his character in with the general populace of Judd Apatow/Will Ferrell-styled arrested development, but there’s an intrinsic difference in that Dana is trying. He has a job and a marriage; he’s just too incompetent to make anything of his situation. Sure, it’s not a classic comedic creation—and Dana’s definitely not someone you’d want to be friends with—but Coogan gets the job done. And the same goes for Hamlet 2, especially when compared to this week’s other so-called humorous offerings. Rated R for language, including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content.