Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.28.08


High School Shakespearical!
Hamlet 2 is half funny, half flat
by Molly Templeton

HAMLET 2: Directed by Andrew Fleming. Written by Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming. Cinematography, Alexander Gruszynski. Music, Ralph Sall. Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, Joseph Julian Soria, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Melonie Diaz, Arnie Pantoja, Natalie Amenula, David Arquette and Amy Poehler. Focus Features, 2008. R. 92 minutes.

Ivonne (Melonie Diaz), Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) and Cricket (Amy Poehler) in Hamlet 2.

It’s a bit odd that there are currently two movies in theaters that involve Steve Coogan, and both begin with fake commercials. The ads that open Hamlet 2 have got nothing on Tropic Thunder’s fake previews, but they do serve to make a point: Dana Marschz (Coogan) has little to no pride. In one ad, he tries to stuff an apple sideways into a juicer; in the other, he discusses his herpes outbreak. It’s just as agonizing as it sounds.

Dana — Mr. M to his students — is a high school drama teacher with a habit of staging adaptations of popular movies. (The school paper’s reviewer, who can’t be more than 13, has no problem shredding said productions.) His two star pupils (Phoebe Strole  and Skylar Astin, both from Broadway’s Spring Awakening) are little bundles of drama-obsessed naïvete: One is a prissy girl who prays for racial understanding but gets nervous around the “ethnics,” the other a flouncy actor who clearly hasn’t quite come to terms with his sexuality. One day, Mr. M finds them outside his classroom, quaking in confusion: There are other students in there! Noisy, troublemaking, backtalking Latino students, even. All the other electives have been canceled; welcome to drama, kids! 

Needless to say, Mr. M’s initial attempts to reach his new pupils — which include watching Dangerous Minds for some insight into their characters — don’t go over so well. Mr. M is wrong about everything, of course, and a brief stretch of Hamlet 2 is a bit of paint-by-numbers stereotype-exploding that isn’t as funny as it should be. But eventually, somehow, his students are rehearsing, they’re emoting, they’re … acting. And some of them are even relatively good at it, to their own surprise.

But Dana’s also got a wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, funny but wildly underused), and a roommate, Gary (David Arquette), and an unnecessary subplot involving the two of them and a desired pregnancy that exists soley to bring Elisabeth Shue (playing herself, sort of) into Dana’s world. The adults are flat characters; their scenes are a drag. It’s only at school, where Mr. M has cast the kids in his original work, Hamlet 2 (the original is just so depressing!), that the movie stays lively. Mr. M is a disaster in motion, and his class is full of kids who’ve never cared about drama, but by twisting the inspiring-teacher tropes and making Mr. M in need of way more help than his charges, Hamlet 2 finds some golden moments. Sure, Dana has more enthusiasm than talent, but a) such is life, and b) sometimes that’s what it takes to stage a musical that unites Hamlet and a time-traveling, jeans-clad Jesus (played by Mr. M, of course). 

The best thing in Hamlet 2 is easily “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a genius musical number that’s the centerpiece of both the film and the play within the film. It’s one of the strangest climactic musical numbers imaginable, bizarrely staged yet charming enough to make up for the weak moments that precede it. Dana never stops embarrassing himself, but at least he’s not making herpes commercials. And by the end, the entire, much-maligned (within the film) community of Tucson, Ariz., is involved in the production of one high school play. Sure, some folks are trying to shut the whole thing down, but they’re all there because of drama. Because of  high school drama. Because of one idealistic, slightly insane teacher. If that isn’t vindication for all that humiliation and grown-up disappointment, what is?


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