Hamlet 2

Focus Features
Andrew Fleming / USA 2008

Hamlet 2 is deliriously profane and marvelously hilarious, an outrageous, sarcastic satire that uses absurdist humor to confront an age old question — what happens when you love something more than life itself, but are not remotely good at it? Mixing South Park style vulgarity with Alexander Payne-esque insight, Hamlet 2 is a pageant film about personal ambition, unfulfilled longing and the blindsiding power of art.

Dana Marschz’s (Steve Coogan) life is a “parody of a tragedy.” Vain, dim-witted, hot-headed, and profoundly miserable, Dana’s wife has left him for their free-loading boarder, he’s just discovered he’s infertile, he has debilitating daddy issues, and he’s a recovering alcoholic. Oh yeah, and he’s a talentless hack. Marschz was once an aspiring actor. His resume includes commercials for herpes medication and an appearance as a rectally impaled, sword-wielding baddie on Zena: Warrior Princess. Oh how the “mighty” have fallen.

“Where do dreams go to die?” asks narrator Peter O’Toole. Cut to Tucson, Arizona and West Mesa High School where Marschz teaches drama. His class consists of two devoted students, closeted gay Rand and proselytizing Epiphany (Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole, both fresh off the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, “Spring Awakening”). While Marschz expounds ad nauseum about the theater, it is middlebrow cinema that he obviously loves, adapting films such as Erin Brockovich for the stage year after year. And year after year pint-sized, wise-beyond-his years school newspaper critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe) tears Marschz’s work to shreds.

When his class is overrun by Hispanic students forced into his program by budget cuts, Marschz suddenly begins to see himself as the lead character in one of the inspirational teacher movies he so loves. With his drama class also set to go under the knife, Marschz realizes something drastic is needed. He must inspire his students to be great actors and come up with a play so powerful the school board cannot possibly cut the class — and his last remaining tie to acting.

Marschz’s answer is “Hamlet 2,” an original musical sequel to Shakespeare’s immortal play. When word gets out that the script features profanity, lewd behavior, and a gay men’s choir, the school administration and community rise up against him. But Marschz will not be deterred. “To thine own self be true!” As ACLU attorney Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) swoops in to shepherd Marschz’s freedom of artistic expression, Marschz sets about pulling off the impossible.

The show-stopping finale of Hamlet 2, is Marschz’s great opus, a play that, depending on your perspective, radiates with brilliance or inadvertently makes a strong case for slashing funds for the arts. Forget angst-filled, introspective soliloquies; Marschz’s play works off the premise that the original “Hamlet” was a “bummer” — after all, everyone dies. Marschz, who is damaged and angered by the castigation he’s endured and the lack of respect he commands, devises a way to right Hamlet’s wrongs and, in the process, find healing for himself. Here, Hamlet uses a time machine and, with Hillary Clinton, Albert Einstein and, yes, Jesus Christ (played by Marschz himself, moonwalking on the water and dancing in the production number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus”) in tow, returns to the past to save those who died.

Hamlet 2 is a freewheeling, seemingly scattershot satire of the theater, film, and middle America. It is politically incorrect and shamelessly irreverent, shot through with a fascinating anarchic rebelliousness and zany anti-authority subtext. With rowdy, off-the-wall, madcap surrealism and profound incongruity, Hamlet 2 uses subversive, absurdist humor to peel back the layers of our collective hypocrisy.

It doesn’t always work. Portions of the film are uneven and occasionally miss their marks. Sometimes you can see where the film is aiming to go but never quite gets. And yet, Hamlet 2 connects far more often than it flies wide. The film is so self-reflexive that it is not satisfied with simply mocking conventions, it intentionally embraces and adopts them as its own, inviting the very same scorn it ridicules. It can be vulgar, to be sure, but it is so with such natural, unassuming sweetness that its barbs rarely feel mean-spirited or dirty.

Writer-director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) pull out all the stops in parodying the high school drama club milieu, artistic snobbery, self-important educators, a Hollywood system that chews actors up and spits them out, censorship of the arts, and the way in which one’s creative self-expression can be hamstrung or stomped out all-together by the narrow-mindedness of those in authority.

Steve Coogan is the new English national treasure. He delivers a gonzo performance as a funny, fey and badly behaved lost soul desperately in search of validation. Coogan has created a character for whom we feel simultaneous disgust and sympathy. We laugh at his pain — be it as a result of the implosion of his sadomasochistic marriage or his ineptitude on roller skates — but never stop caring for him. Throughout the film, Fleming’s camera holds on Coogan for several more seconds than is traditionally appropriate, just because he knows that when Coogan finishes a line, he is, in reality, just getting started. It is one of the funniest performances of the year.

Other performance highlights include the aforementioned Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole, Elisabeth Shue playing herself as a Tucson nurse who walked away from show business, and the great Catherine Keener as Brie, Marschz’s acid-tongued wife.

Fleming and Brady have created one of those rare comedies that actually has something worth saying. That they did so while mocking cloying sentimentality and self-seriousness is all the more impressive. Hamlet 2 is a sharp, social lampoon about the blistering, unforeseen, bombastic, power of art and imagination and the intersection of personal renaissance and corporate regeneration. Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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