August 22, 2008
There’s the Rub: The Bard As Slapstick Review
By Stephen Holden
Reviewed by Stephen Holden
'Hamlet 2" belongs to the school of free-for-all satiric farce whose creators ball up wads of ideas, apply chewing gum and hurl them against the wall to see what sticks. If the style smacks of desperation, enough of the jokes cling to make "Hamlet 2," directed by Andrew Fleming, intermittently funny.
The gum is the British actor Steve Coogan's maniacal portrayal of a spectacularly untalented and self-deluded failed actor and high school drama teacher with the nearly unpronounceable name of Dana Marschz (the mispronunciation is a repeated joke that doesn't fly.)
In his clueless grandiosity, Dana is a cousin of Corky St. Clair, Christopher Guest's eternally optimistic regional theater director in "Waiting for Guffman." Coogan's rough-and-tumble brand of physical comedy, however, is much closer to Jim Carrey than to Guest. Dana is not in the least cerebral, even when declaring his credo, "To act is to live." Less a fully fleshed character than a bundle of tics doing pratfalls, he is a slapstick puppet manipulated by the screenwriters (Fleming and Pam Brady).
As the drama teacher at West Mesa High School in Tucson, Arizona, Dana specializes in turning movies into theater. His latest production, a dismal stage version of "Erin Brockovich," has been savaged by the ninth-grade drama critic (Shea Pepe) in the school paper.
The movie, which on Friday opened in limited release across North America and Europe, imagines Dana's finding redemption at the nadir of his life by writing and staging "Hamlet 2," a singing and dancing sequel to Shakespeare's "bummer" (Dana's word). Until that preposterous triumph, he is the butt of the movie's contemptuous humor. Early on, we learn that at the insistence of his nagging wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), he has been undergoing fertility tests. Hoping to improve his sperm count, he wears a ludicrous caftan to classes. He is also a recovering alcoholic who eventually slips.
The Marschzes are so poor, they have taken in a cretinous boarder named Gary (David Arquette). Because Dana can't afford a car, he awkwardly roller skates to and from school. Keener is wonderfully abrasive as the disdainful Brie, who decides that anyone (especially Gary) would be better mate than her husband.
Discouragingly for Dana, his chaotic classes include only two serious drama students: closeted, high-strung Rand (Skylar Astin), a star in his own mind, and Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), a syrupy Christian goody-good. Most of the other students are rowdy Mexican- Americans, whom Dana, in the movie's jab at ethnic profiling, mistakenly assumes to be gang members. The surliest, Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), is also the most talented and is eventually cast as Hamlet. Unbeknownst to Dana, he is the son of snooty high-achieving intellectuals and has won early admission to Brown, a private and prestigious East Coast university.
Dana's ultimate humiliation comes when he is rudely informed that belt-tightening has necessitated the elimination of drama from the curriculum. "Hamlet 2" will be his last hurrah. But when word circulates that the show is indecent, the school cancels it and Dana moves it to an abandoned warehouse. As community opposition to the production escalates, a strident civil liberties lawyer, Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), storms into Tucson to make sure the show goes on.
Of the several Hollywood subgenres being spoofed, the Inspirational Teacher film (like "Dead Poets Society" and "Mr. Holland's Opus," both of which Dana greatly admires) is the most prominent until the Let's-Put-on-a-Show genre takes over. By this point the movie is so busy hurling notions at the wall that most of its opportunities for pointed satire are squandered.
The most mystifying joke shoehorned into the film is the sudden appearance of Elisabeth Shue playing herself, as a disgusted refugee from Hollywood who has moved to Tucson to be a nurse. She stops the movie dead in its tracks.
The climactic production, which occupies the film's last 20 minutes, is a garish hodgepodge in which "Hamlet" is rerun through a time machine to bring the characters back to life and give it a happy ending. It includes a moon-walking Jesus (Coogan), a local gay men's chorus singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and a mildly inflammatory anthem, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," that is one step to the left of "Jesus Christ, Superstar." It all adds up to the kind of bad family entertainment likely to raise only a few eyebrows.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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