The fact that there’s not one believable moment in all of “Hamlet 2” doesn’t mean that it’s not a funny movie. Thanks to the oddball choices of its star Steve Coogan—who plays the most obtuse drama teacher in all of history—sometimes the film moves beyond the stage of trying too hard and into the realm of genuineness.
Of course, a movie does not have to feel real to be entertaining—just ask Mel Brooks or the Abraham/Zucker team behind “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” series. The biggest problem “Hamlet 2” has is that its director can’t decide on a consistent tone. Is it a send-up of the white-teacher-who-inspires-inner-city-kids-to-come-together-and-make-a-difference movie or is it a bizarre coming-of-age flick where it’s the teacher who has to grow up and the students do the teaching? Either way, in hands of someone like Wes Anderson, this material would have been less forced and perhaps conjured up some moments where characters actually connected.
If its meant to be just a straight-up a parody of sad and bitter local theater types with big Hollywood dreams and small talent, then unfortunately “Hamlet 2” was beaten to the punch by Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman,” which—despite its off-the-cuff nature—actually “gets” these people, feels more dangerous, and has way better songs.
There is something different about the way British comedian Coogan (so perfect in “24 Hour Party People”) commits to playing Dana Marschz, a failed actor who teaches high school drama in Tucson, Ariz. The man is completely oblivious to the world around him. His single-minded vision has room only to see his plays—every one of them based on big Hollywood movies such as “Erin Brockovich”—and the same two students who perform them every semester. Dana is so desperate for acknowledgement of his talent that he kneels at the feet of the school newspaper’s disparaging critic—a kid who looks every bit of 13—and asks for guidance. I’m not sure that Coogan understands this character (how could he?) and his performance veers from obvious slapstick to crackpot ignorance. Again, some of it is very funny, like an absurd comedy sketch. But these moments only serve to point out how many failed jokes there are in the film—scenes that fail so miserably that you feel ashamed for laughing the moment before.
Does Dana have any talent? As an overeager ACLU lawyer played by Amy Poehler says later in the film, “It’s irrelevant!” It is unclear whether co-writer/director Andrew Fleming (“Dick,” “Nancy Drew”) wants us to laugh at or with him. We get bits and pieces of his masterpiece (and his bare ass, in what seems to be a disturbing trend this year; see “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), a play inspired by his abusive father entitled “Hamlet 2,” where a time machine allows Shakespeare’s notoriously Oedipal character to stop the tragedy and make sure everyone lives this time. In theory, this idea sounds like it could be really funny. As it is carried out, with a modern-day sexy dancing Jesus who makes cracks about crucifixion and a gay men’s choir singing Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” it’s tasteless for shock’s sake. The whole play is intended at illustrating how Dana cobbled together all of the bad clichés he’s learned from Hollywood into one mess of pop culture that’s so bad that it just might be brilliant, but from what we get to see of it, it’s just a reflection of the rest of the movie’s onscreen mess.
Here’s a perfect example of why the movie just doesn’t work. Catherine Keener plays Dana’s wife, an unhappy woman who generates real empathy even as she cracks wise about her husband right to his face. Not only is she the smartest character in the room, she’s light years ahead of Dana. It makes absolutely no sense that they would ever have gotten together in the first place. In addition, the choice to have Elisabeth Shue appear as herself is just as contrived as it sounds, since even the Oscar-nominated actress can’t hide the fact that the only reason she tolerates this dimwit is because the script says she has to.
There are times where Coogan gives real heart to Dana—the heart of every attention-starved performer—but it’s as if Fleming left half of the performance, and the movie for that matter, on the cutting room floor. The editor must have had a hell of a time trying to find any consistent tone for this film. As a satire, “Hamlet 2” fails as well, because its script is as banal as the subject matter it mocks. When recounting the movie’s central plot, it always sounds funnier than “Hamlet 2” actually is. I’d rather watch Max Fischer’s “Serpico” or Corky St. Clair’s “Red, White and Blaine” any day.