The first joke in Hamlet 2 was on me. When I sat down to watch this highly buzzed comedy I actually worried that I wouldn’t get all of the jokes. It’s not that I’m not familiar with the Bard — in fact, I’d just seen another production at Shakespeare in the Park — it’s just that with Hamlet, there’s so much to get. But I was in good company. Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), the drama teacher hero of this demented farce, understands even less about Shakespeare than I do. He’s as adorably clueless about the Bard as I was about this movie.
No, Hamlet 2 is not the inappropriate sequel riff I thought it might be on Hamlet. Nor is it a classic in modern day comic drag a la Clueless’s take on Emma or, to keep it Shakespearean, Scotland PA’s greasy spoon version of Macbeth or 10 Things I Hate About You’s reworking of Taming of the Shrew. I bring up these movies because I think Dana might like them, even if he didn’t respect them. He prefers “inspirational” movies like Dead Poet’s Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus, which he hopes to restage at West Mesa High in Tucson Arizona with his drama class.
Dana takes Polonius’s advice “to thine ownself be true” painfully seriously, perhaps missing Shakespeare’s joke that Polonius isn’t exactly the best role model. The drama teacher is eager for self expression but ill equipped to express. Alas poor Dana, his jest is not infinite and his fancies are not excellent. He’s a failed actor whose greatest claim to fame might just be the leading role in a Herpes commercial (if only comedies as recklessly irreverent as Hamlet 2 proved so viral). He may be talentless but thankfully Steve Coogan has an abundance of it. The familiar actor is great fun to watch even if his merciless performance is sometimes cringe inducing: Did he really just say/do that?
Yes, he did.
Dana Marschz isn’t having a good year. He can’t get his angry wife (Catherine Keener) pregnant. They’re so poor they can’t afford a car and he has to rollerblade to work. His latest production, a stage version of Erin Brockovich has been, as he delicately puts it, “raped … in the face” by the high school’s teen critic. Worst of all, he receives news most foul that his beloved drama department will be shut down. It’s ‘A Midsemester Night’s Nightmare’ for this man who only has Drama in his life. To rescue his job, he realizes it’s time to stop borrowing from Hollywood and write his own material. He’ll stage a new hit with his class of homies straight out of Dangerous Minds. But first he’ll have to whip them into shape with Method Acting exercises (what kind of animal would you be?) and win their trust. It’s what inspirational teachers do. His grand idea: a sequel to Hamlet… a corrective if you will. Hamlet is so sad! It’s a great little meta joke: Dana’s still borrowing, though in truth it’d be unwise to say that the madhouse sequel (starring Jesus Christ. No, really) is Shakespearean. It’s definitely Marshczian.
Comedies that excessively play on or reference their audiences pop culture knowledge always run the risk of immediately dating themselves. So they’d better be funny in the right now. In this, Hamlet 2 succeeds. Whether it’s lampooning theater people (any fans of Waiting for Guffman in the house? The spirit of Corky St Clair lives on in Dana Marschz), having a laugh at the entire Inspirational Teacher ™ genre, or exposing the limits of quippy dialogue without a star talent to deliver it (the Erin Brockovich scene is choice), it’s often quite funny. Even the less complicated maneuvers elicit chuckles; The star cameos mostly deliver (Amy Poehler I salute you), the slapstick is silly, and when “Sexy Jesus” arrives in the outre production of Hamlet 2 the movie is clearly very drunk on its own dementia. I’m not sure that it’s as funny as it thinks it is but I was still laughing.
But is there something rotten in the state of Tucson? Many jokes are had at the town’s expense, but I’m speaking about the movie. The taboo comedy topic of molestation didn’t win Freddy Got Fingered many fans. Will Hamlet 2 get away with it since it’s actually, you know, funny? Good taste can be a death knell for good comedy but even so, not all the mean-spirited laughs in Hamlet 2 work. I had trouble with Keener’s bitch sans wheels. The actress had been expanding her career and performance range of late dropping unexpected warmth and depth into her filmography even in the context of raunchy comedies like this one (think The 40 Year Old Virgin) but she’s just plain unlikable here. When she does get a laugh over a jumbo margarita there’s a bitter hangover. Faring better than Keener is Elisabeth Shue who plays herself as a failed actress turned nurse. She’s Dana Marschz’s favorite actress. Shue is as warm a performer as ever and seems to be having fun with the one joke the movie allows her (I won’t spoil it). But mostly she’s just a good sport since the jokes are on her. This comedy is unkind.
To see or not to see: that is always the question. See. Rapid-fire comedies work best in crowded movie theaters. It’s funnier if other people are laughing. Though Hamlet 2 be madness, yet there is method in’t. Method acting not included.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.Elisabeth Shue, Get Thee to a Nunnery!
Film | August 25, 2008 | Comments ()