The month of August has been a good one for comedy. There have been a couple of very funny, very R-rated comedies of the high profile variety in Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, plus the underachieving The Rocker, and even The House Bunny, all providing good doses of laughter this month.
As August comes to a close Hollywood gives us one chance at laughter before the symbolic end of summer passes us by. That film turns out to be the very humorous, and very non-politically correct, Hamlet 2. This also happens to be the first American film with Steve Coogan in the lead. The British comedian has had a number of supporting roles over the past few years, including Tropic Thunder. Perhaps this film will help him break through with the American audience.
Coogan stars as Dana Marschz (pronounced with something akin to a buzz), a failed actor who has stepped away from the business (while still looking for a way in) to become a drama teacher in a Tucson high school. It turns out he isn't all that good at either. His class consists of two overly eager, teacher's pet types in Rand (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and the plays are meant to be ironic takes on popular films, the latest being Erin Brokovich. This latest production becomes just another in a long line of plays to be savaged by Dana's arch-enemy, a pint sized school theater critic, Noah (Shea Pepe). The youngster offers Dana some advice: "Do something original." This sets the failed actor off in a new direction.
This new direction is given further importance by the fact the drama department is becoming the next casualty of budget cuts, hot on the heels of other arts education classes. So, being the only arts class left, Marschz finds his class greatly expanded beyond the initial two to include a large group of Latino students, causing Epiphany great anxiety. Our fearless teacher sees this as an opportunity to inspire, with obviously comedic results.
Anyway, in his effort to save the drama department, as well as please the school's critic, Marschz spends many sleepless nights working on a new, original script. The result of his hard work is his masterpiece Hamlet 2. That's right, the name of the movie is the name of the play within the movie and not actually indicative of this movie being any sort of sequel, direct or not, to the William Shakespeare masterpiece. Marschz even finds an ingenious way to get around the fact that all the interesting characters in Hamlet die at the end — a time machine. Not to mention Jesus, leading to the big musical number "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," because, you know, he's hot.
Plenty of roadblocks are placed in the way for him and his class to overcome, but we don't want to it to be too easy, right? Hamlet 2 is not all that different in structure from the inspirational student/teacher dramas that it targets, not to mention directly references, such as Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, and Dead Poet's Society.
There is nothing structurally special about Hamlet 2. What makes the movie work so well are the writing and the performances. The screenplay from director Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady (South Park, Team America, and the underrated Hot Rod) is quick on its feet, and actually has some heart behind the offensiveness. I even like how they explain the appearance of Jesus in the musical. It is a movie that definitely trades on not being politically correct, but is not without genuine characters to connect with, which helps set it apart from other comedies with modest aspirations which often try for the quick joke at the expense of character.
Andrew Fleming directs the film with little flair. I would be hard pressed to point out any particular directorial style, especially from a filmmaker whose career includes such diverse offerings as last year's Nancy Drew, The In-Laws, and The Craft. Still, the film does have a certain vibrancy as we follow Steve Coogan and his journey to achieve his dreams as well as inspire those around him.
The performances are all quite good, particularly Coogan. His Marschz is messed up, he has all manner of quirks and issues, including a strained relationship with his wife (Catherine Keener) and their boarder David Arquette. He is not only messed up but he knows it, and is working through it. Well, sort of. Suffice to say it is an interesting character. As for the supporting cast, they are all good as well, the characters developing personalities of their own and standing apart from each other.
The biggest problem I had with the film was the way the story lost its way as it steamed towards the conclusion. The story about the drama club going away and the parental concerns of certain parents, these and other points get lost in the over-the-top nature of the play performance and are forgotten completely in the climax. It is not a make or break issue, but it does bring it down a notch.
Bottom line. This is a funny movie; the story told may be a typical one, but it is injected with a dose of daring and originality. Hamlet 2 is definitely a movie that will make you laugh. Give it a chance, you may be surprised.