Sunday, January 11, 2009

“Hope I’m not freaking you out. Wait! I hope I AM freaking you out!”

Hamlet 2 generated a huge amount of buzz when it was screened at Sundance, but it garnered pretty mediocre reviews upon its release (it has a 63% on RottenTomatoes). In reality, Hamlet 2 probably belongs somewhere between those two.

Failed actor Dana Marschz (a fantastic and fully committed Steve Coogan) has been teaching high school drama in the apparent cultural wasteland of Tucson, AZ, producing his stage adaptations of Hollywood motion pictures (including Erin Brockovich, Mississippi Burning, and a plan to do a musical version of The Lake House). Following budget cuts, the school has decided to shut down drama. Following a heart-to-heart with Dana's nemesis, a middle-school aged drama critic for the school newspaper, he decides to stage his greatest play ever in an attempt to save drama. He is going to stage his original play "Hamlet 2", a sequel to (as Dana calls it) "Hamlet 1" that is mostly about Dana's troubled relationship with his father.

As a consequence of every other elective having already been shut down, Dana's drama class is now populated by stereotypes of kids from the wrong side of the tracks, mainly Latinos (though, as Dana points out, "Just because they're Latino doesn't make them gangbangers"). Things are even more tumultuous for Dana as his harpy of a wife simultaneously belittles him and pressures him to have a baby, Dana meets actress-turned-nurse Elizabeth Shue (playing herself in a small but great role), and intense controversy spreads as words gets out that "Hamlet 2" contains scenes of violence, graphic sex, and non-stop heresy.

When Hamlet 2 works, it produces plenty of laugh-out-loud gags. Dana's lack of social awareness and basic social tact are the basis for plenty of the movie's best moments. His unbridled enthusiasm, combined with his total lack of any talent (not just acting talent, but also teaching, directing, writing, and basically everything) makes Dana both likable and the non-stop butt of most of Hamlet 2's jokes. This combination of likableness and obvious ineptitude works to allow the audience to both root for Dana and revel in his constant failure.

While not all of Hamlet 2's humor is irreverent and offensive, a good portion of it is. As you can imagine, a parody of the "inspirational teacher" movie about a man staging a high school production containing a scene of group sex between Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, and Hillary Clinton is not going to be very PC. Don't worry, the more offensive humor isn't mean-spirited, but based more on character ignorance. Unless you're from Tucson. Tucson really gets taken to task (as Dana tells one of his students: "You're going to have a magical life. Because no matter where you go, it's always going to be better than Tucson").

There are things that don't work so well, though. The characters-as-stereotypes gag can get a little old. Try as she might, Catherine Keener can't really give too much depth to the role of Dana's unbearable bitch of a wife. Amy Poehler's ACLU lawyer is painfully abrasive and not at all funny. There is not any real emotional depth to the movie, which can be both good and bad. While the movie doesn't try to shoehorn in any life lessons or commit any emotional blackmail, there also isn't a lot of investment in the characters. You just sort of ride along, from one hilarious moment to the next.

Plus there is a lot of Steve Coogan ass. And maybe some balls, too. I'll leave you to decide if that's good or bad.

Ultimately, Hamlet 2 is definitely funny. It might not be a classic movie, but it has plenty of classic moments (e.g. the "creative process" montage, Elizabeth Shue telling Dana's students her favorite thing about acting, Dana's declaration to his unborn child). I wouldn't say anyone needs to see it, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for some fun and easy laughs.


Brad said...

I like that Dana is playing the Dane. Seems intentional...?

Scott said...

Actually, Dana plays Jesus. Hamlet is played by one of the tough Latino kids. Dana also briefly plays, during the song "Raped in the Face", Albert Einstein.

Brad said...

Ah. Well, naturally, I suppose.