Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

I have to say that I'm eating crow with Hamlet 2. What I'd feared was going to be a bargain-basement, smug parody on the level of crap like Disaster Movie was actually a thoughtful, yet completely delusional satire about creative bankruptcy yielding unexpected fruit. In simpler terms, Hamlet 2 is a frequently hilarious little movie about a guy who's just trying to do the best with his limited talents.

When failed actor turned drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) finds out that the Tuscon, Arizona school board is cutting the funding for his department, he plans to go out with a bang by writing an original play for his class of mostly Hispanic misfits. That play turns out to be "Hamlet 2", a play more about Marschz exorcizing his rejection and daddy issues than it is an honest stab at sequelizing Shakespeare. As obstacles begin to mount, Marschz inspires his class to soldier onward in the face of the school board, discerning parents, and the limits of good taste. Soon, the play becomes a media circus, and Marschz's ACLU rep (Amy Poehler) is convinced that she's got a First Amendment case on her hands.

While you're more likely to see and hear more about the content of the play itself in ads and trailers, the best parts of the film concern Marschz as his life crashes down around him on his journey to get the play to stage. His wife (Catherine Keener) is convinced that he's losing his mind, while his star student, Rand (Skyler Astin) rats him and his play out to the school principal. There are some smart, well-played jabs at the acting world, as we meet Marschz's idol, actress-turned-nurse Elisabeth Shue (yes, played by Elisabeth Shue). She plays herself as being wiser for her time in Hollywood, but clearly a little bitter.

Writer/director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady take equally interesting jabs at the PC-police, those people who protest any and everything offensive. During the film's big number, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus", a group of Christian teens bow at the front of the stage and begin praying and barking shouts of protest. One of them begins listening to the lyrics, gets exactly what they're talking about, and suddenly becomes a fan. Marschz isn't trying to offend by incorporating Jesus into his play. He just thinks everyone deserves a second chance, and is willing to don the robe and long hair himself to prove it. It's moments like this that make Hamlet 2 work as well as it does. Not all art has to strive to be high art. So long as it entertains and gets its point across, who cares how deep it is?

In a nutshell, that's how I feel about the movie as a whole. It's certainly not the end-all of comedies that the ads and film festival buzz might lead you to believe, but it is a lot of fun in its own way. Hamlet 2 is a more conventional comedy than it's indie roots may lead you to believe, but with some smart humor and a delirious performance from Brit-TV mainstay Steve Coogan, it does it's job and largely succeeds. One word of warning: you may pee yourself laughing at the song titled "Raped in the Face".

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

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