Hamlet 2 takes on Hollywood

Movie formulas get a raunchy, mocking send-up

click to enlarge THE DANE LIVES! Steve Coogan, center, stars as a high school drama teacher who leads his students in a production of Hamlet 2, in the film of the same name. - Focus Features
Focus Features
THE DANE LIVES! Steve Coogan, center, stars as a high school drama teacher who leads his students in a production of Hamlet 2, in the film of the same name.

One of the first things you notice about Hamlet 2 is its healthy dislike for films like Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society, movies in which students (the more troubled the better) have their spirits lifted and lives turned around by that one Very Special Teacher. Hamlet 2 so relishes spewing its venom on these inspirational institutional dramas, you might be tempted to think of it as the anti-Mr. Holland's Opus.

Beyond any of its other virtues, that makes Hamlet 2 A-OK in my book. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

In case it wasn't already apparent, Hamlet 2 is a comedy, and a pretty aggressively over-the-top one. The title alone tips us off — like Napoleon Dynamite (a movie to which Hamlet 2 has been justifiably compared), here's a moniker so mock-audacious it can't help taking the wind out of its own sails. And while we're on the subject, let's just mention that Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), the cartoonish hero of Hamlet 2, is every bit as obnoxious and self-delusional as that Dynamite guy and often just as inexplicably funny. But that's where the comparison ends.

Dana is a failed actor whose resume consists of appearances in ads for herpes creams and juicers, with the odd gig as an extra on Xena: Warrior Princess — where he gets pronged in the butt by Lucy Lawless, accompanied by our narrator pompously intoning, "To act is to live!" Cut to Tucson, Ariz., where Marschz has been reduced to teaching high school drama and directing student productions of Erin Brockovich and other plays based on Hollywood movies, each of which is in turn savaged by the school newspaper's pint-sized, Roland Barthes-quoting critic.

The thing about Dana is that, despite his artistic airs and ambitions, he really has very little talent and even less taste — he genuinely loves that cookie-cutter crap that Hamlet 2 can't stop ragging on, movies like Mr. Holland's Opus and Patch Adams (one of Marschz's proudest moments being a gig as Robin Williams' stand-in for a day) — and he's too clueless to even realize what a mess his life is.

Broke, deluded and with a last name nobody can pronounce (it's something like Marrs-chh-zzzz), Dana lives with his bitchy, ex-pot-dealer wife (the ever-watchable Catherine Keener) and their weirdly silent roommate (David Arquette), and roller skates to work because he can't afford gas.

The plot kicks in when Marschz's minuscule drama class (consisting of a prissy Bible thumper and her closeted gay pal) is suddenly expanded with the arrival of a group of archetypically streetwise Latino kids. The movie has some seriously impolite fun with Dana's pathetic attempts at bonding with the students, who wind up slipping him acid and watching him shriek. Shortly thereafter, word comes that the drama department is being shut down as part of the ongoing de-funding and de-valuing of the arts (a high school drama teacher being almost as expendable as a film critic at an alternative weekly paper).

In desperation, Dana decides to produce an original play so spectacular he's sure it'll reverse his flagging fortunes — an all-singing, all-dancing sequel to Hamlet. The introduction of a time machine resolves the minor inconvenience that all of the characters died at the end of Shakespeare's play.

Hamlet 2 follows a series of formulaic plot conventions to mostly subversive effect, supplying raunchy and sometimes clever twists that allow the film to make fun of certain sorts of movies while admitting that, when push comes to shove, it's also one of them. In short order, the administration shuts down the play; the students salute Mickey Rooney and shout, "Let's put on a show!" while moving the production off school property; and the play becomes a cause célèbre championed by the local media and defended by a politically incorrect ACLU lawyer played by Amy Poehler.

Everything here is played for laughs, and no subject is too touchy to become a joke: the absurd "life lessons" doled out by Hollywood movies; the casual cruelty of high school kids; Keener's quiet desperation and Coogan's pathetic character flaws and ultimate realization that his life is a "parody of a tragedy" — much like his play. The movie toys with poignancy, but it's only fully at home when it's being outrageously crass, and if bits involving a caftan-wearing Coogan letting his balls breathe, or mention of the "sociopolitical agitprop" inherent in a scene of Satan locking lips with George Bush recall something from South Park, there's good reason.

Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew, Dick) is the director here, but his co-writer is Pam Brady, a key collaborator on the South Park movie, and Hamlet 2 revels in a sensibility not too far afield from where Eric Cartman roams. The movie is divided up into chapters with titles like "At the Sperm Bank" and "Hope is a Demon Bitch," and there's even a girl here who seems to exist for no reason other than getting her brains repeatedly knocked out à la Kenny.

It all culminates with the play itself, a mind-bogglingly awful production that consumes most of the movie's last act with a barrage of Shakespearean characters dueling with light sabers, pondering group sex with Hillary Clinton and crooning a tender ballad like "Raped in the Face" and the pelvis-thrusting "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."

And when the action flags, there's always the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus belting out a rousing show-tune rendition of something from Flashdance. Hamlet 2 isn't for every taste, and its characters might be utterly insufferable if not for the appealing edges supplied by actors like Coogan and Keener, but hey — what a piece of work is man, right?

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