DVD Review: Hamlet 2
THE MOVIEHamlet 2 is easily one of the strangest comedies I saw in 2008. It’s not unlike Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder (see my review here), in that it’s spoofing a fairly well-tread subgenre – the “inspirational teacher movie” – while also managing to work as an entry into that genre. I didn’t think Hamlet 2 was as funny as Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder, but unlike those films, it actually has some fairly pointed things to say about modern American culture (the closest the other two movies comes to any similar sort of statement is Tropic Thunder co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller’s ongoing fascination with the entertainment business, which can make a lot of his directorial work a little too inside-baseball for some), and it’s also smarter, and considerably angrier. I generally try to avoid using too many overdone reviewer-words, but “scathing” immediately came to mind while I was watching it. The plot of Hamlet 2, on its surface, is pretty standard inspirational teacher movie stuff. British comic Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz (pronounced "Marsh," more or less), a struggling actor whose credits include ads for juicers and herpes medication and a tiny role on Xena: Warrior Princess (he was also Robin Williams’ stand-in for a week on Patch Adams) who know spends his days working pro bono as high school drama teacher in a Tucson, Arizona, where he puts on plays based on contemporary movies like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning (!). He’s very unhappily married to an awful, bitter shrew of a woman (Catherine Keener) and to make ends meet, they’re renting out a room in their house to a dim slacker (David Arquette). When he finds out the school – which couldn’t care less about any arts programs, hence Marschz’s working for no pay – is cancelling drama, he decides he has to put on a blockbuster play to save the program. Taking the advice of an unusually verbose 14-year-old critic from the school paper (Marschz’s insane desire to get positive notices from a kid who cleans hamster cages is the funniest recurring gag in the movie), he decides to stop adapting mainstream movies for his plays and craft an original work. His idea? To write a sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The fact that Marschz unironically attempts to write and produce Hamlet 2 tells you all you need to know about his idiocy and self-delusion, but his ridiculously ambitious undertaking and his desire to save the program he loves gives him his first true bit of artistic inspiration. One of the greatest conceits in the movie is that, aside from a few offhand references to the play made by characters and a few glimpses of the production during the final sequence, the plot of Marschz’s Hamlet 2 is never really addressed in any detail. Instead we get tiny bits of information about what's actually in Marschz's sequel, such as a time machine, Albert Einstein, Jesus, at least one flying lightsaber duel, Satan kissing the president, and a stage setup that spoofs Rent’s scaffolding set. And as if that weren’t enough, Marchz is also using the play to address his serious unresolved issues with his father. Because Hamlet 2 is a movie that's very much about show business –Marschz is prone to bitter outbursts about his failed acting career, and Elizabeth Shue plays herself as a former successful actress who now works as a nurse in Tucson after she quit the business in disgust – the filmmakers fill it with references to actual inspirational teacher movies like Dangerous Minds (which Marschz watches after his first day with his new class full of the Latino “troubled kids”), Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus (another of his faves). But ultimately the difference with Hamlet 2, as the producers say in the extras, is that this time the ethnic kids from the bad side of town (another stereotype the film has some fun with – Marschz assumes his students are all dead-end gangbangers, and learns that one has a 3.9 GPA, with a father who is a successful novelist with a PhD in literature and a mother who is a painter with an exhibit in the Guggenheim) save the teacher, instead of it being the other way around. But as much as Hamlet 2 is about a high school play, it’s definitely not for kids; it’s filled with swearing and sexual references (the students perform a song alongside Marschz – who’s dressed as Einstein for reasons that are never explained – called ‘Raped in the Face’).Most importantly, Hamlet 2 is pretty damn funny. I haven’t seen any of Coogan’s signature BBC show, Alan Partridge, but he’s absolutely brilliant in everything else I’ve seen him in, and he’s no different here. He deserves a ton of credit for this movie working as well as it does; it’s a tricky balance the filmmakers are attempting to strike between satire and outright stupidity, and without someone as talented as Coogan carrying the whole thing, Hamlet 2 could have been a huge mess. Instead, Coogan makes Marschz a totally likeable buffoon through his relentless, infectious enthusiasm. I don’t remember the last time “lovable loser” was such an apt character description. But in addition to just being a comedy, Hamlet 2 has a lot to say. It’s a comedy about the anti-intellectual, anti-art sentiment that’s seemingly been growing in America in the past decade or so, as well as homogenous mall-culture. It’s set in Tucson, Arizona, and it’s filled with mean jokes about what a boring, lifeless dead-end place it is (I’ve never been, so I can’t really say, but the director mentions they had to shoot in New Mexico because officials from Tucson didn’t appreciate the script and didn’t want them to shoot there). But it’s also filled with more low-brow, broad comedy – it’s written by folks who worked on the South Park movie and Team America, so it’s got a similar all-over-the place vibe. If jokes about Shakespeare and the dumbing down of contemporary culture aren’t your thing, a silly pratfall or bit of male nudity will be along in a few seconds to try to get a chuckle out of you. And somehow the filmmakers even manage to make what little of the Hamlet 2 play we actually see emotionally affecting; it’s sort of a real moment when Marschz, playing Jesus (some time after the ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ musical number – sadly not to the tune of Falco’s ‘80s classic, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’) forgives his own father. My biggest problem with Hamlet 2 was with Catherine Keener’s character as Coogan’s wife. As I mentioned earlier, she completely loathes her husband for being such a loser, but the character is so hateful that it’s difficult to identify her as even human. I get that she personifies all of Marschz’s self-doubt – she thinks nothing of belittling his ambitions or sperm count in public – but I couldn’t get past the idea that there was no possible way these two characters made it through one dinner together, let alone got married. This isn’t a knock on Keener; she’s an excellent actress, and she’s not bad here (and I also realize this isn’t a comedy filled with totally realistic, fully fleshed-out characters), but she was just too awful a person for me to buy her as anything resembling a real person. And I promised myself I’d mention that the “putting on high school plays based on hilariously inappropriate contemporary movies” is lifted from Rushmore. Overall though, Hamlet 2 is a very funny comedy with real ideas and genuine intelligence behind it, and there isn’t a whole lot of that going around these days. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different from the average comedy, check out Hamlet 2. At the very least, the ending is much more uplifting than Hamlet 1. GRADE: B+THE EXTRAS
The DVD features on Hamlet 2 are some of the cleverest, from a conceptual standpoint, that I’ve seen in a while. In addition to a couple of more traditional making-of/cast and crew featurettes (which do a decent job of showing the apparently fun on-set vibe) and a lone deleted scene, there’s a pair of sing-along features for the two songs performed in the film, ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ and ‘Raped in the Face.’ There’s also a cute comparison between the brief scene from Marschz’s Erin Brockovich play and the same bit in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film. Finally, co-writer/director Andrew Fleming provides a solid, if unremarkable, commentary track.
Labels: comedy, DVD review