WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Actor-turned-teacher Dana Marschz comes up with a personal project to inspire his suddenly-full drama class: a time-travelling, musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet featuring lowriders, lightsabers – and the Lord Jesus. Unsurprisingly, both the Principal and various parents object to the work, but he finds enthusiasm for the play from unexpected quarters and the show looks as though it will indeed go on – allowing for Marschz’s chaotic personal life, that is.
Dana Marschz’s (Steve Coogan) acting CV is pretty unspectacular, so much so that he’s been reduced to teaching drama in the backwater of Tucson, Arizona; and even here, his film-based productions such as Erin Brockovich fail to find much of an audience, or indeed a cast, since his class consists only of Rand (Skylar Austin) and Epiphany (Phoebe Strole). Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) tells Marschz that budget cuts are going to cost him his job, news that adds to his troubled home life, Dana’s wife Brie (Catherine Keener) impatient for a baby and taciturn lodger Gary (David Arquette) hanging around unhelpfully. Suddenly, asbestos in the portable classrooms sees a Latino influx into Dana’s class, and with nothing to lose the teacher reacts to the Dangerous Minds-type scenario by putting on his own show, Hamlet 2, a sequel which employs time travel to get round the conclusive ending of Shakespeare’s original and also features Jesus as a character with his own father-son issues and his own song, ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’.
Reluctant player Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) proves to be a strong Hamlet, until his objecting parents threaten to take him out of the show, and Rand objects to being a bi-curious Laertes and spills the beans to Rocker, who drives the production out of the school into an abandoned warehouse. Events conspire against the show and drive Dana back onto the booze he gave up seven years previously, with disastrous personal consequences; however, Hamlet 2 also has defenders, not least civil liberties lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) and – randomly – Elisabeth Shue, last seen keeping it real as a nurse. But if Marschz gets his act together enough to put the play on, it’ll mainly be thanks to the young actors who find they actually love the business of show.
It’s impossible to keep abreast of every film that comes out, but even so I was surprised that I had never heard of Hamlet 2 until it appeared on the BBC, especially since I’m a fan of Steve Coogan. Reading up a little, it seems that the film was scooped up for a small fortune by distributors at Sundance, but disappeared promptly after dismal box office (it never had a theatrical release in the UK). It’s hard to say whether the poor public reception was justified, since the film is a curious beast indeed: the kids are all too sweet-natured to create any dramatic tension, while the themes of freedom of expression and censorship get lost amongst some of the broader comedy. Hamlet 2 doesn’t quite seem to know whether it’s a satire on the vanity of actors or a knockabout romp (Natalie Amenula’s Yolanda is the victim of a lot of slapstick), and the uneven tone isn’t helped by the gravity of Keener rubbing against the faintly surreal introduction of Shue, though both are individually fine.
Essentially, though, your appreciation of Hamlet 2 is likely to be influenced by two things. First is whether you like Dana Marschz, a bizarre character given to roller-skating, kaftan-wearing and writing without trousers or pants on. Steve Coogan plays up the comic elements quite brilliantly, especially when Marschz falls spectacularly off the wagon, but the emphasis on physical comedy detracts from the more considered sections of the film, such as the tacked-on infertility plotline. That said, his American accent is impeccable and he resists the urge to do a Mike Myers and mug to the camera at every opportunity. The second thing – much like Waiting for Guffman, which this film strongly recalls at times – is the show itself. While it deliberately and self-consciously courts controversy, only without the gumption to properly mimic the likes of Jerry Springer: The Opera, it’s a fun and energetic climax to the movie. Indeed, there are moments, when the wirework and pyrotechnics are in full flow, the Ralph Sall Experience are belting out ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, and the audience – especially an enthralled Shue – are coming round to the play, when the whole thing threatens to come together.
There are other positives to Hamlet 2, too: Amy Poehler is good value as the play’s (and Dana’s) unlikely champion, and the final outcome is pleasantly optimistic (on an entirely personal note, it also features a hotel I stayed in once!). However, the overall impression is of a movie that never quite weaves its disparate ideas into a fully-developed narrative with rounded, credible characters (and that, for all the fun he provides, includes Dana). This isn’t a bad film, by any means, and it’s definitely worth a viewing if you’re keen on Coogan’s style. On the other hand, it’s perhaps not so hard to see why it was a box-office bust.