In a year punctuated with very funny movies, “Hamlet 2” stands out as the most peculiar and comedically risky. Its style of humor is an almost indescribable mixture of social satire, broad slapstick, and dry irony. I’ve seen it twice, seven months apart, and while I laughed through most of it both times, I can also see how some viewers will come away scratching their heads and wondering what’s supposed to be so funny.
The star is Steve Coogan, a beloved British comedian who still isn’t being hailed as a genius in the United States. (Meanwhile, Dane Cook gets one movie deal after another.) He plays Dana Marschz, a mostly untalented actor who endured a number of humiliating show-biz gigs before giving up and moving to Tucson, Ariz. (“Where dreams go to die”). Now he is the drama teacher at West Mesa High School, specializing in stage adaptations of popular movies like “Erin Brockovich,” which he writes himself and which invariably must be two-person shows because he only has two students in his class. One, a girl named Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), is a typical drama queen; the other, Rand (Skylar Astin), idolizes, and is probably in love with, Mr. Marschz.
After budget cutbacks result in the cancellation of most other electives, Dana’s class is suddenly full of students, though most of them have little interest in being there. Determined to be an inspiring educator like the ones he’s seen in “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Dana tries to reach out to these kids, who are all Latino and, Dana assumes, from the wrong side of town. Dana is a lot like Michael Scott from “The Office”: unaware of his own imbecility and eager to show everyone how gifted he is, despite not having any gifts.
Soon the budget cutbacks, mixed with a string of scorching reviews from the school paper’s theater critic, threaten to shut down the drama program, too. Dana has one last chance to stage a show that will raise money and awareness. It has to be a doozy. It has to be memorable. He settles on an original script he’s been writing, a little thing called “Hamlet 2.”
That title is arbitrary, perhaps chosen to give the movie a hook. (“‘Hamlet 2’?! Now that sounds like a crazy comedy I should definitely go see!”) What Dana Marschz writes only begins with Hamlet (who escapes death via a time machine) and becomes more accurately a musical investigation into Dana’s own childhood traumas and his unresolved issues with his father. We see snippets of it in rehearsals and a huge chunk of it at the end of the film, when the play is staged before a shocked audience. Hamlet isn’t the only literary figure of note to be included, either — Jesus is here, too, a hip Jesus who moonwalks on water and scores big with the modern generation.
Before we get there, though, there is controversy as the community learns about the edgy elements of Dana’s show. The ACLU steps in (kudos to Amy Poehler for a brief but memorable turn as the group’s humorless representative), and Dana experiences massive self-doubt. He is not helped by his hilariously unsupportive wife, Brie, played with all the scathing sarcasm and apathy that the great Catherine Keener can muster (which is considerable, as you know if you’ve seen Catherine Keener in almost anything). Ultimately, the kids realize the lesson Dana has taught them: “It doesn’t matter how much talent we lack, as long as we have enthusiasm.”
There are elements of several different kinds of movies (the Inspiring Teacher Drama, the Teen Comedy, the Let’s Put On a Show! Musical, etc.), all of them relentlessly and absurdly satirized in a screenplay by Pam Brady, a “South Park” collaborator who also co-wrote the “South Park” movie and “Team America: World Police.” Her work here is co-credited with the film’s director, Andrew Fleming, who made 1999’s under-seen political comedy “Dick” and last year’s better-than-you’d-think “Nancy Drew.”
Dana Marschz (that’s pronounced with three syllables, “Mar-zh-ce”) is an oblivious, “Waiting for Guffman” type, the sort of character who never does realize what a loser he is. I’d be hard-pressed to identify any unifying theme to the film’s whimsy, any connective tissue between the various things it makes fun of. Why do Dana and Brie have a dull boarder (David Arquette) living with them? Why does Elisabeth Shue appear as herself, tired of Hollywood and now working in Tucson as a nurse at a fertility clinic? Because it’s odd and bemusing, that’s why.
When “Hamlet 2” is finally performed, the audience is initially outraged by the portrayal of Jesus (played by Dana, looking strangely like “Weird Al” Yankovic), as well as the show’s other highly offensive sexual material. Then they come to see that the show means no disrespect, that it’s a commentary on stuff, and the scandalous nature of it is necessary to make its point. They say, “Oh, I get it!” But I think the joke is that they’re wrong — there ISN’T any deeper, more honorable message in it. There’s nothing to get. Though Dana earnestly believes he’s making a valid point, I think his show — that is to say, the movie — is being sacrilegious and dirty solely for laughs, a way of poking fun at how high-minded Hollywood satirists like to do something taboo while claiming to have noble purposes for it. (See: the recent controversy surrounding “Tropic Thunder” and the word “retard.”) Many humorists are edgy just for the sake of being edgy, and “Hamlet 2” makes fun of them by doing the same thing, only with self-awareness.
A- (1 hr., 32 min.; )