A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #25

HAMLET 2 jjj
½ 

2008, R, 92 mins.

Dana: Steve Coogan / Octavio: Joseph Julian Soria / Elisabeth Shue: Herself / Rand: Skylar Astin / Dana's wife: Catherine Keener / Gary: David Arquette / Cricket: Amy Poehler / The Critic: Shea Pepe

Directed by Andrew Fleming / Written by Fleming and Pam Brady

Focus Features' Hamlet 2

No.  That is not a typo on the poster.  This film does have a stage production within it called HAMLET 2, the sequel to the same HAMLET that was penned by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1601, which is universally revered as one of the defining tragedies of English literature.  Clearly, a follow-up to The Bard’s most famous work seems difficult, seeing as – because it’s a tragedy – almost everyone dies at the end.  But HAMLET 2 has an ace up its sleeve for being able to bring back most of its characters: 

It has a time machine. 

Yes, this HAMLET sequel has just about everything, and I do sincerely mean that.  Who would have thought that the continuation of arguably the greatest play of all-time would include (in random order) – the resurrected Prince of Denmark, Albert Einstein, Hilary Clinton, the real Elizabeth Shue, a lightsaber-style sword fight, the Tuscan Gay Men’s Chorus singers, and a blackberry carrying Jesus (yes, as in the Son of God) that wears ripped jeans and a tank top that moonwalks on water and engages in a KARATE KID-esque crane kick to the noggin of Satan himself. 

Oh…and did I also mention a time machine? 

If there were a lesson to the unmitigated howlfest that is HAMLET 2, then it surely would be that unbridled passion and limitless enthusiasm can always trump a genuine lack of talent.  There is almost something innocent and charming about the monumental naiveté and persistent tunnel vision that the film’s “hero” engages in to see his dream project of a sequel to HAMLET through to fruition.  

Yes, a sequel to Hamlet is certainly not a good idea, especially when it contains offensive religious iconography, a smorgasbord of anachronisms, and, among other things, a moment where characters perform hand jobs on each other.  Alas, much like Ed Wood Jr., HAMLET 2’s creator can’t see past the incredible unwholesomeness of the enterprise, as well as the indisputable lack of worth of his play.  In a way, this playwright's struggles to see this play produced is oddly inspirational: Despite the fact that it certainly is enormously insipid and outlandish, you just have to admire this man’s blind devotion. 

The man in question is Dana Marschz (pronounced "Mars-chuh-chuh-zzz") and he is played in the brilliantly madcap comic breakout performance of 2008 by Steve Coogan.  Dana was once a L.A. actor that found his path to success stunted by a series of embarrassing jobs (the opening of the film shows clips of Dana hosting an infomercial and some commercials he’s done; one in particular has him strolling down a park with his girlfriend while stating to the camera, “I am suffering from a herpes outbreak…but you can’t tell”).  His career fumbles led to alcoholism, which he beat by moving to Tuscan with his stoned wife (in a brief, but funny, performance by Catherine Keener) so he could become an inner city high school drama teacher.  Dana has many pet projects that he creates for the school’s stage, alongside the help of two of his ass-kissing students, which include horribly bad remakes of ERIN BROCKOVICH.  Dana gets no respect from his peers, not to mention that the snotty child critic for the school’s newspaper loves to lambaste his efforts as puerile and lacking any discernable skill.  When he reads the latest review of his play, he cries to his students, “He fisted us. I have so much anger that I feel like I’ve been raped in the face!” 

Things get worse for Dana.  He’s always broke, his wife can’t stand that he’s also “shooting blanks” in their efforts to have a child, and – the horror! – the school’s principle (Marshall Bell) decides that the drama class will be terminated at the end of the school’s semester.  Perhaps the most demeaning thing to occur is that the class itself – initially forced to occur in the school lunchroom – is later relocated to the school gym.  Dana’s problems are also not assisted by the fact that his class is filled with a bunch of chronic underachievers that don’t respect him or his class. 

They say that despair breeds the creative juices, which is certainly true in Dana’s case.  He then decides that the only way that he will be able to save the drama department is to make the best play the school has ever seen: HAMLET 2.  When some people question why and how anyone could conceive making a sequel to the most important of all tragedies, Dana emphatically responds that the first HAMLET was too much of a downer and needed some cheering up.  

That...and a time machine, a hipster Jesus Christ, and song and dance numbers. 

Dana only sees how marvelous his own play will be, no matter how politically incorrect it is.  He has very few supporters outside of his few loyal students, but one nurse he meets at a fertility clinic admires his perseverance.  She is Nurse Shue, as in Elizabeth Shue, as in LEAVING LAS VEGAS-Oscar Nominated Elizabeth Shue, played by the real Elizabeth Shue in a droll and self-deprecating performance that demonstrates (a) a sad truth about her real life career and (b) what a real good sport she is for being in this film.  She admits during an exchange with Dana how jaded she has become with Hollywood and her lack of decent projects as of late (which has a honesty about it) and how she instead turned to nursing.  Considering that she has not made a truly good film in ten years, all I have to say is...good for her.  Nursing is a noble profession.

Dana’s play, at least, deserves some points for its wacky and spirited invention.  The plot itself concerns Hamlet getting access to a time machine where he – along with his b.f.f. Jesus – goes forward in time to the modern world and then travels back before the tragic events of HAMLET: PART ONE so he can resolve his daddy issues and save and marry the once drowned Ophelia.  The real showstopper of the play is a rip roaring and insidiously hilarious and catchy song and dance number called “Rock me Sexy Jesus” where Jesus cavorts on stage with swooning high school students at his side.  Offensive and sacrilegious?  Absolutely, but I defy anyone – Christian or not – to not hum a few chords of this song for weeks on end after seeing this film.  If there's justice in the film world, it will get a "Best Original Song" nod at next year's Oscars.  It's the most sarcastically hip song since SOUTHPARK's Academy Award nominated "Blame Canada".

Of course, things don’t go altogether smoothly for Dana and his students before the play premieres.  The school’s teacher bans Dana for the school and fires him and when word gets out that Dana is making an R-rated sequel to HAMLET with questionable depictions of a very famous savior and dubious changes in Shakespeare's original source material, the town wants this trashy production put to an abrupt stop.  Within no time, a ACLU legal nut job (Amy Poehler, playing these parts well) gets involved and makes damn sure that HAMLET 2, in all of its demented, delirious, and profanity-laced glory, gets its due.  

HAMLET 2 is just about the funniest film I’ve seen this year.  It’s the kind of infectious comic vehicle where once you start laughing at a few things you start rolling over in riotous giggles at just about everything.  The film is in the grand tradition of the truly great, unhinged screen comedies, ones that never turned a blind eye to potentially offending audience members, nor unwilling to go for broke and do anything to secure laughs.   This is one of those rare R-rated comedies that certainly deserves its rating, but in ways that does not utilize lowest common denominator gross out gags and pratfalls.  This film is lewd, potty mouthed, and blissfully subversive, but you never feel that HAMLET 2 feels dirty-minded or truly hurtful.  The ultimate defense for the material is that Dana is really a shortsighted and mournfully amateurish schmuck that simply can’t see past the wretchedness of his play.  The film begs the question as to whether or not one should partake in something when their love for it overrides their competence in getting the job satisfactorily done.  In Dana’s case, his carefree and childlike spunk overrides what a humiliatingly bad playwright and director he has become.  This film is a celebration of perverted mediocrity, but at the heart of is is a poor sap with noble intentions and a big heart.

As a work of absurdity satire, HAMLET 2 also generates considerable guffaws.  Dana himself – being an underdog misfit high school teacher that feels up against the ropes by his students and school board – worships at the altar of many real Hollywood films involving downtrodden teachers inspiring their students for betterment (works like DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, DANGEROUS MINDS, and MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS are referenced).  HAMLET 2 contains some of the superficial elements of those saccharine, feel good dramas, but the peculiar and funny thing about the film is that it almost comes across as more genuine with its own inspirational story of a teacher with a heart of gold that wants to lead his students to betterment.  I also liked the film’s subtle commentary on the hellish state of movies today, where too many enterprises are resided over by studio execs that want films with happy endings. Ironically, Dana’s attempts to mess with Shakespeare’s original and thoroughly proven recipe for tragedy takes subtle jabs at the shamelessness of how studios make lackluster entertainments that are afraid of being dour and depressing at risk of alienating audiences.  I mean...a frumpy Hamlet...what a drag! 

Themes or not, HAMLET 2 is jubilantly zany and side-splitting and it manages to find the right balance between camp, offensive content, and a discretely sentimental vibe.  At its core is a vivacious comic performance of sheer lunacy and vigor by the great Steve Coogan, who was also very amusing in this summer’s TROPIC THUNDER and was unreservedly brilliant in one of the best comedies of the last few years, TRISTRAM SHANDY, A COCK AND BULL STORY.  His work as Dana is a tour de force guerilla feat of inspired comic histrionics and dignity-ripped and unbelievably unhinged pathos.  What’s so astounding here is that Coogan makes Dana a protagonist that is both worthy of our obsessive mockery and modest praise.  He’s a complete imbecile that does not know a good play if it bit him on the rump, but he’s displays so much admiration and inexhaustible infatuation for his profession that it sure becomes hard to ridicule him for it.  He’s the kind of man you grow to like and, yes, root for, but you still may not want him as your best friend.  Like the best of Peter Sellers, Coogan is able to play a chronically bumbling doofus with delusions of grandeur to almost masochistic levels.    

And…of course…the production within this production is a memorable, robustly amusing fiasco and is so strangely beguiling and free spirited that – like "Springtime For Hitler" in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS – your grow to admire its capricious and daft energy more than its polarizing content.   HAMLET 2 was directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming (who made the great political satire DICK) who gets the tone of this slapsticky farce without overplaying or undercranking it, and the other screenwriter is Pam Brady, who helped write the equally off-the-wall and madcap TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, as well as last year’s very funny HOT ROD, which also had a man-child character that thought he was a tough and agile stuntmen when, in actuality, he was a walking ER victim.  In HAMLET 2 Brady and Fleming craft a small scale comic masterpiece about a falsely self-actualized, self-hating, maniacally vain and criminally inept thespian that seeks betterment by writing, directing, and staring in what has to be the single most foolhardy re-telling of a Shakespearean work ever conceived.  There is very little polish to the stage version of HAMLET 2, but what it has in spades is a zeal for making it.  

If Billy Shakespeare lived beyond the 17th Century, he may not have approved this sequel, but he certainly would have howled all the way through it as I did.

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