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Hamlet 2 delivers the slings and arrows of outrageous comedy

by Glen Baity

In a world where even Gone With The Wind gets a sequel, is it far-fetched to think that someone, somewhere would endeavor to write the next chapter of a Shakespearean masterpiece? That’s the prevailing idea in Hamlet 2, an exercise in sublime silliness from director Andrew Fleming (The Craft) and “South Park” creative producer Pam Brady. Set in Tucson, Ariz., the film chronicles the travails of teacher Dana Marschz, whose deeply, deeply unpopular high school drama program is axed by a financially strapped school board. Dejected, the auteur nevertheless hatches a plan to save it: He’ll make the board see the error of its ways by staging Hamlet 2, a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy that adds a happy coda to the original’s Act Five bloodbath. Dana reaches deep within himself to write and stage the play, pondering the question: What would happen if the prince of Denmark hopped in a time machine with Jesus of Nazareth? This horrible idea is wrapped inside a film whose plot is loosely structured around the Stand and Deliver/Lean On Me/Dangerous Minds template. Dana fancies himself an inspiring teacher in the Michelle Pfeiffer mold who reaches out to a group of kids on the brink. The comedy comes from the fact that the inspirational instructor is a moron and his students aren’t really at risk of anything but boredom. From this, to his credit, Dana delivers them. But beyond the film’s plot, which seems incidental in the first place, Hamlet 2 is a peek into the psyche of a delusional failure who redefines what it means to be oblivious. Coogan is stunning in his commitment to the character of Dana Marschz (pronounced, he insists, “MAR-ss-shh-zuh”). This man is many things: struggling actor, idiotic playwright, terrible husband and appalling educator. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film that takes such care to establish its lead, within the first 10 minutes, as such a monumental, irredeemable loser with no likable qualities. It may sound weird, but this makes him thoroughly likeable. And really, Hamlet 2 doesn’t want to teach you a lesson, or give you a character you can relate to. These are all people to be laughed at, not with, and the film makes no bones about it. With that established, the viewer can spend the duration of this extremely funny movie basking in Dana’s incompetence.

That incompetence is given wings in his stage production, which apart from Hamlet and Jesus features Albert Einstein, a meth lab explosion, a flying light saber duel and several Grease-style musical numbers too aggressively tasteless to discuss in a family newspaper. It’s hilarious stuff, and I was quaking with laughter through most of it. Coogan gets big-time help from co-stars Catherine Keener, who plays his long suffering wife, and Elisabeth Shue, who plays an alternate-universe version of herself in which she has sworn off acting to become a nurse. Still, for all its laugh-out-loud moments, it’s virtually impossible to pin down a statement in Hamlet 2. Like “South Park,” its greatest strength and biggest weakness is that it feels like a send-up of everything, holding nothing sacred but the right of the audience to laugh, especially at things they feel they shouldn’t be laughing at. This can get exhausting during certain subplots, such as a particularly tired one involving a male student who learns to embrace his latent sexual orientation. But its misfires are few, and if you can go all-in for the film’s gleeful absurdity, you’ll find plenty to love about Hamlet 2. The jokes are funny and well-delivered, and Coogan’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. Even the musical numbers by Ralph Sall are infectious, and remain stuck in my head as of this writing, a full day after my viewing. With all that going for it, can Hamlet 3 be far behind? For comedy’s sake, let’s hope not.

To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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