Movie Review: 'Hamlet 2' is constructed of leftovers

In-jokes for the elite, inspiration for the rest

Steve Coogan is a high school drama teacher trying to save his job in 'Hamlet 2.'

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Steve Coogan is a high school drama teacher trying to save his job in "Hamlet 2."

Released in 1983, "Porky's II: The Next Day" was a teen sex comedy that didn't need anything but juvenile naughtiness and R-rated nudity to make a profit. Nevertheless, the movie sneakily delivered a crude message about art and free speech through a plot that found Miss Balbricker and other community bluenoses trying to shut down the high school's production of the "obscene" works of Shakespeare, to the dismay of Pee Wee, Meat and the rest of "the gang."

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Movie critic John Beifuss reviews "Death Race," "Hamlet 2," "Bottle Shock" and "Tell No One."

Movie critic John Beifuss reviews "Death Race," "Hamlet 2," "Bottle Shock" and "Tell No One." Watch »

Steve Coogan is a high school drama teacher trying to save his job in 'Hamlet 2.'

Focus Features

Steve Coogan is a high school drama teacher trying to save his job in "Hamlet 2."

Dana Marschz is a failed actor-turned-high school drama teacher. Shortchanged in the talent department, Dana still harbors ambitions and passions. At work, that is; his ...

Rating: R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content

Length: 92 minutes

Released: August 22, 2008 Limited

Cast: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue

Director: Andrew Fleming

Writer: Pam Brady, Andrew Fleming

More info and showtimes »

The comedy "Hamlet 2," which also concerns a controversial high school Shakespeare production, inverts the formula. With the talented and respected British comic actor Steve Coogan in the lead role, the movie -- which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival -- aspires to be taken seriously, despite its goofy and sometimes risqué humor. Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor and deluded high-school drama teacher ("My life is a parody of a tragedy," he says) who stirs community outrage when he attempts to save his job by staging an original musical, "Hamlet 2," a sequel to Shakespeare in which the melancholy Dane uses a time machine to rewrite history and meet Jesus Christ, who becomes the focus of a show-stopping number called "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."

Energetic and committed to his unlikely character, Coogan almost succeeds in making "Hamlet 2" work. But the movie panders to both the Sundance crowd (jokes about show biz, religion and the American Civil Liberties Union) and the mainstream audience (ultimately, it's "inspirational" -- in fact, the movie should have been rewritten to qualify for a PG-13 rating, because its most appreciative viewers will be teenagers with a newfound enthusiasm for drama).

The "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" number feels like a "South Park" discard, and seems to have been conceived by writer-director Andrew Fleming to bait real-life bluenoses, in hopes of generating the type of controversy that results in free publicity. The rest of the movie also is constructed from leftovers: the spoofery of amateur theater recalls "Waiting for Guffman"; the idea that Dana stages adaptations of such popular movies as "Erin Brockovich" is lifted from "Rushmore"; and when Elisabeth Shue appears as herself, we could be watching any number of supposedly ironic celebrity-conscious post-"Simpsons" comedies.

The movie does contain one really funny character, however: a shrimpy kid who quotes Ronald Barthes in the pans of Dana's plays he writes for the school newspaper. "What if it sucks?" Dana asks his young arch-nemesis, confessing his insecurity about "Hamlet 2." Responds the youngster: "Isn't that the question every artist must ask himself?"

"Hamlet 2" is playing exclusively at Malco's Studio on the Square.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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