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Hamlet 2 (2008) ***

August 28, 2008
 
 
written by: Adam Fleming and Pam Brady
produced by: Eric Eisner, Leonid Rozhetszkin & Aaron Ryder
directed by: Andrew Fleming
rated R (for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content)
1 hr. 34 min.

U.S. release date: August 22, 2008
DVD/Blu-ray release date: December 21, 2008
I like my comedies a little on the strange side, kinda offbeat with a dash of irreverence and a touch of realism. It’s enjoyable to see the kind of quirky and/or conflicted people who we’re familiar seeing in real life turn up in a comedy that emphasizes just how humorous, pathetic and/or tragic their lives can be while also shedding light on their humanity. There’s quite a bit of all that going on in this nutso film written by Pam Brady (South Park) and Andrew Fleming (“Dick”), who also directed. Granted, the entire movie is ludicrous but sometimes, laughter makes up for other faults. Plus, I’ve seen films just as ludicrous, executed horribly, which this strange film is not.
 
 
With such a title, you may be wondering what in the world (if anything) this has to do with The Great Bard’s classic work, which is irrefutably one of the classic plays in history. It’s really just too absurd to try to explain what acting hack Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) comes up with in his original play entitled, “Hamlet 2”.  Marschz (pronounced Marshh-chhh-zzzz) is a high school teacher whose only claim to fame has been a series of info-mercials and television appearances back in the day. 

Now, he’s living in Tucscon, Arizona, where he works for gas money although he unsuccessfully rides roller skates everywhere. His work in the drama department have so far produced lackluster adaptations of Hollywood blockbusters such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Mississippi Burning”. This immediately brought to mind what might happen to Wes Anderson’s Max Fisher from “Rushmore” if he were to continue making his own “hit plays” in his 40’s. Like Max Fisher none of Dana Marschz’s play are original or well….good although at least Fisher’s had some endearing touches to his ingenious approach. Here, Marschz basically just inappropriately apes any award-winning film, forgetting that there’s a reason that film is the chosen medium for these stories.
 
 
 
 
Catherine Keener and David Arquette in Focus Features' Hamlet 2
 
 
 
Just like his own acting talent, Marschz’s students are few and far between. With his previous plays only having two actors, the uptight Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and the effeminate Rand Posin (Skylar Astin), the three are shocked when the new semester is full of a dozen or so new students.  But these aren’t necessarily student s who want to be there. Turns out all the “cool” electives like shop and home ec were cancelled and all those students were forced to take up drama. The big shock is that these students are primary Latinos, or as Epiphany puts it….“the ethinics”….so, how are they to deal with these veritable gangstas? Well, Dana’s idea of trying to understand them is to watch how Michele Pfeiffer coped in “Dangerous Minds” since these new students don’t fit into the “Dead Poet Society” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” mold, two movies he holds dear.
 
In order to please his biggest critic, the school paper’s ninth grade reporter, Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe), Dana shoots for originality in his own warped way. He decides to create this musical sequel to Shakespeare’s classic that has time travel as a solution to the problem that all of the characters die at the end of the original. Dana is thrilled when he sees promising talent in Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) as he realizes the kid’s gangbanger persona was just a front and winds up casting him as Hamlet. Despite his outlandish efforts to build unity among his actors, his rehearsals are haphazard at best but that’s not his only problem. His previous work in the drama department was never regarded highly by the school board, especially Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) who gets hold of the politically incorrect script and warns him that the drama department will be cancelled.
 
Dana’s home life isn’t doing much better either as his angry alcoholic wife Brie (Catherine Keener) still can’t believe that she actually married this guy. It says quit a bit about their marriage when it’s revealed that his been sober for seven years yet she continues to booze it up. Her bitter and sardonic tone is the polar-opposite to Dana’s upbeat yet stupid demeanor which explains why he doesn’t catch on that she and their border Gary (a useless David Arquette) are now an item. It seemed any unfortunate circumstance that can come Dana’s way….does.
 
After a trip with his wife (and Gary!) to the Prickly Pear fertility clinic (heh) to find out whether or not he’s been shooting blanks, he meets a nurse there named Elizabeth Shue….played by Elizabeth Shue. That’s right, she plays herself as an actress who is now content working as a Tucson nurse, having given up the Hollywood scene altogether for the typical reasons one gives up all that spotlight. Watching Dana gush over this unlikely celebrity encounter is hilarious and at times awkward but certainly not unnatural. You can totally see something like that happening, where a fan meets one of their favorite actors and totally embarrasses themselves. Only with Dana, he’s just not embarrassed. He just can’t get over that he met Elizabeth Shue in a Tucson fertility clinic….and neither can you! 
 
At first, we could easily be annoyed by Coogan’s portrayal, writing it off as just another goofball character in a comedy. But he brings several endearing layers to Dana, so much that you can’t help but to eventually like the guy….though he’s still a dolt. We’re reminded that even dolts need a break every now and then. 
 
Coogan gives us a character that we’re familiar with. He’s that underdog who through his enthusiasm remains earnest yet slightly off target. In fact, he’s so enthusiastic that he even tells his students that “enthusiasm is often more important than talent.” He lives in a cynical world surrounded by naysayers yet he desires to inspire. Sure he’s a doofus but Coogan excels at winning over with a character that we would initially never imagine liking.
 Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Focus Features' Hamlet 2
 
 
“Hamlet 2” has some outrageously funny moments and irreverent ones as well, requiring a certain sense of humor, and quite possibly some thick skin. What hooked me the most is that’s it’s trying to be one of those ‘inspirational teacher’ movies with a teacher than cannot inspire. It’s only through his laughable behavior and audacity that his students start to get it together. Sure, some of the gags here are so inanely stupid that you might feel like smacking yourself upside the head, especially some of the broader physical humor….but you will laugh, because of where the movie goes and just as you think that it can’t get any more insane, it proves you wrong. A good example is the scene where we meet Octavio’s family. That scene and several others deal with stereotypes and racism and very surprising, silly and real ways, at no time is it insulting.
 
The movie is a vehicle for Coogan, who deservedly carries the movie yet he had an ideal supporting cast to back him up. All of Dana’s students do show the typical stereotypes but there’s nothing really overt or over-the-top. One stand-out is the ever-present Melonie Diaz, a young actress I’ve noticed in other films lately and whom I wasn’t at all surprised to see bring her own dynamism to the table. Amy Poehler also shows up as an ACLU lawyer who defends Dana’s right to include both a song called “Sexy Jesus” and Hilary Clinton in the production. She has some of the best lines in the movie. 
 
As for the actual tour-de-force musical performed at the end? It’s catchy, silly, fun and offensive. It’s hard to offended with the material, seeing as how by then I already expecting such absurdity. The musical numbers feel ripped right outta “South Park” and while I wasn’t a big fan of either of those, at least I wasn’t appalled. The film really does a great job at offering absorbing character moments amid insane hilarity, something often tried and failed in comedies. 

I’m glad to see Coogan gain some exposure here in the states with this. It’s hard to take your attention off him in just about every role he’s in. You may find yourself watching this movie and (like me) wonder who is more twisted and demented….you or those who wrote it.      
 
 
 
 
  
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