Sometimes an idea can be so bad that it becomes good. That is what Tucson drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is banking on when his class mounts a production of “Hamlet 2” to save the program from being squeezed out by an unfriendly school board. This idea is also what filmmaker Andrew Fleming and Focus Features (who plopped down $10 million at Sundance for this movie) are hoping will draw audiences to the cinema this summer. Could something this awful, a play where Hamlet travels through time and meets Jesus, actually be worth seeing? Like the audience in the film, I was intrigued.
Coogan, brilliant in films such as 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy, continues his winning streak as Dana, an ex-actor (he starred in herpes commercials) who has decided to quit the business and impart his love for the craft to a duo of high school students in Arizona. Like his previous performances, Coogan is brilliant as a man who is about to lose all the pieces of his life: his job at the school is at risk, his career as an actor has stalled, and his relationship with his wife (Catherine Keener) is on the rocks. Even his sperm are no longer functioning.
But Dana’s days of staging high school theatre versions of big films such as Erin Brockovich are about to end. When all electives but drama are canceled, his class of two is now filled with a group of Mexican students with no acting experience, and even less interest. Will Dana be able to turn this group of rag-tag misfits into a professional troupe and save drama?
Hamlet 2 both skewers and savors those kooky thespians we all knew in high school. Since I was one of them long enough to learn that dating actresses is a bad idea, watching Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole as Dana’s sycophantic students reminded me why I hated high school actors so much in the first place. But there is also something endearing about their earnestness and innocence, especially when confronted with issues like sexuality and race. What will these two little white kids do when a band of Mexicans join the class? The answer is simple: first reject and then embrace them.
The film attempts to tackle the preconceptions that all actors are “fags” and all Latinos are “gang bangers.” Though one of the Mexican students is actually Ivy League-bound, the others still know about meth labs and robbing televisions. One of the actors, convinced he is straight, eventually gives in and takes on the role of a bi-curious Laertes. Can you have your racial cake and eat it too? In a movie that features Elisabeth Shue playing, um, Elisabeth Shue, does it even matter?
Like all comedies, Hamlet 2 has jokes that work and jokes that fall flat. Fleming puts a lot of stock into repetition, jokes that keep on giving as the movie unspools. Some are hilarious (Coogan’s attempts to bring up his sperm count), some are dumb (watching Coogan slide around on skates is comical... once), and some are open for debate (a musical number called “Raped in the Face” treads the line between the horrific and the insanely funny). The actual staging of “Hamlet 2” contains some moments of brilliance, like the musical number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” which features Coogan, as the Savior with a killer bod, moonwalking on water. And watching a random stoner react to the set’s unveiling is priceless.
A lot of issues (racism, sexuality, free speech, religious fanaticism) are bandied around in Hamlet 2. However, unlike films such as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut that take these issues head-on and shred them with cheerful abandon, Hamlet 2 mostly soft-cocks its way around the land mines. Yeah, it is okay to laugh at a Mexican proposing the troupe sells guns to finance the play, but then why proclaim bigotry as wrong? You can’t have it both ways, though it seems Fleming (desperate for a hit after crap like Nancy Drew) wants us both to laugh at and tut-tut the big issues here.
Ultimately, it’s Coogan that makes Hamlet 2 worth seeing. Though Fleming populates the film with some interesting co-stars, some that soar (Marshall Bell is great as Dana’s boss and nemesis and Amy Poehler is funny as a litigious ACLU representative) and some that crash (what the fuck is the point of putting David Arquette in there if you don’t give him any lines and Keener continues to play the same salty character that she could do in her sleep by now), it is impossible to take our eyes off Coogan. Like his production of “Hamlet 2,” his Dana Marschz is a train-wreck of a human being that could and will derail at any moment. But grandiose plans that will almost certainly fail fascinate us, and though success is unlikely, we want to watch anyway.