It was supposed to be an underdog success stories everyone could get behind. Advance hype had Hamlet 2 pegged to be the 2008 model of Little Miss Sunshine and, more importantly, it had Steve Coogan positioned to finally break through as a bankable star of American comedy. He’d already cracked the mainstream that year with a brief but memorable turn in Tropic Thunder and a killer role in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but Hamlet 2 was set to be both his victory lap and a major crossing of the transom a la Sacha Baron Cohen. Unfortunately, this is not what happened at all. Instead, the movie bombed atomically, greeted by the kind of audience indifference that proves more poisonous than widespread scorn.
Hamlet 2 was never going to get nominated for Oscars or get your uncle whistling the music of Sufjan Stevens. It just wasn’t that kind of movie, even though it shared Little Miss Sunshine’s team of producers and boasted the exact same back story. Both movies had, by all accounts, legendary screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, sparking bidding wars to the tune of several million dollars. The difference is that while one film was an uber-twee ensemble dramedy, the other was an irreverent, gag-filled satire and a showcase for one bravura performance.
Steve Coogan is comedy’s quiet hurricane: unassuming, yet ultimately devastating. His characters often maintain a thin veneer of aloof cheerfulness even as circumstances propel them toward utter chaos. He and Pam Brady, the heavy hitter South Park writer, make an inspired pairing; where South Park specializes in clever broadness, Coogan is a master of broad cleverness. Both parties are capable of rendering a man getting in hit in the nuts freshly hilarious again, and their diverse styles ultimately prove complementary.
Hamlet 2 tells the story of Coogan’s Dana Marschz, a failed actor turned high school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona: “where dreams go to die.” Marschz is amiably married to a wife who is openly regretful about their union. When he’s not jumping through hoops to try and impregnate her, he channels most of his energies into staging school plays based on once-popular movies like Erin Brockovich that are now beloved by few. The plays are uniformly awful, and the latest one has just been panned by the school’s resident theatre critic, who looks younger than Tavi Gevinson, but is astutely snarky in the way of New York Magazine’s Scott Brown. His eviscerating reviews send Marschz into fits, making the character seem even more pathetic than he already is — which is difficult considering he’s a recovering alcoholic rollerblader prone to proclamations like this:
As Coogan plays him, Marschz is a uniquely horrible drama teacher: ill-informed about theatrical history, unskilled at acting, and misguided enough to wax ecstatically about the “the always superb Robin Williams” in Patch Adams. Marschz is still reeling from the latest bad review when he finds out that, due to school budgetary cuts, a large number of “ethnics” will now be forced to enroll in his class. Naturally, his two star pupils — the only ones who willingly signed up for the class — feel threatened, even though they are now sharing their teacher with people who don’t care to compete with them. As for Marschz, he soon feels threatened even more, when it emerges that further budget cuts will eliminate the drama program altogether at the end of the term.
In a moment of darkness, Marschz turns to his mortal enemy — pint-size theatre critic Noah Sapperstein — for advice. It’s sadly obvious that he not only defers to this child’s opinions and judgment, but also hangs on his every word. (The forced formality of a handshake in one of their few brief encounters is among the funnier small touches in the movie.) The young critic duly advises Marschz to take a new theatrical tact, but the drama teacher incorrectly interprets this suggestion as a mandate to bring his own personal artistic vision to life. Thus he sets out to create the movie’s titular play himself, an almost impossibly unnecessary sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Once Marschz has a script in hand, the rest of the movie chugs along like a train ride headed for an inevitable, magnificent wreck. Along the way, word leaks out about just how batshit crazy the play is going to be, and various forces conspire, threatening to shut it down. Of course, we all know that is not what is going to happen.
What keeps the film from devolving into predictability, though, and what ultimately makes it worthy of the pre-release hype, is that Hamlet 2 alternately adheres to and satirizes two separate genres: regional theatre mockumentaries and inspirational teacher movies. In terms of the former, Hamlet 2 splits the difference between Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman and Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High. The central production in each case is motivated by something different. Chris Lilley’s drama teacher, Mr. G, is putting on a musical mainly to celebrate himself. Christopher Guest’s Corky St. Clair is spearheading his for more complex reasons: partly because his town needs him, and in part because a success might help him get the hell out of town. Steve Coogan’s Dana Marsch, though, mostly just wants to work some shit out. He twists the story of Hamlet into his own tormented relationship with his father and attempts to rewrite history. Unlike the other drama teachers, for Marschz, instead of a labor of love, crafting the play is more akin to actually going into labor.
With impeccable detail, Pam Brady’s punchy script nails the drama class’ true believers, who have the perfect drama class names: Rand and Epiphany. After Dana Marsch appears to knock himself unconscious, Epiphany cries out, “Why is this happening to me?” and thereby demonstrates the exact level of attention-craving native to the theatrically inclined. The other star student, Rand, aptly fulfills the “sexually confused” drama boy quota, as evidenced by his sheer delight at the dick-shaped balloon Marschz waggles in his face — a South Park-ish visual joke that lands, despite itself. For a truly spot-on send up of local theatre, though, look no further than this poster, which features the immortal chin-on-fist headshot:
If the regional theatre aspect is represented by the two lone holdouts from Marsch’s previous class, the new students work to parody the inspirational teacher genre instead. Although Summer Heights High gave a knowing wink toward those movies when Mr. G lead his students through “Lean on Me” to warm them up before a big performance, Hamlet 2 goes even further through the meta looking glass. Marshz obviously wants to be a life-changing role model for these kids he assumes are all lost causes. Unfortunately the way he goes about affecting this outcome is by watching movies like Dangerous Minds and Dead Poet’s Society for inspirational ideas, and then mentioning to the class that he has done so just for that reason.
Satirically, Hamlet 2 really succeeds where something like the Jon Lovitz-starring Zucker movie High School High never could: in its laudable efforts at genre subversion. Here, when the father of one of these “gangbangers” won’t let his son perform in the school play, it’s not because ignorance of the arts is passed down through the generations. Rather, the father doesn’t want his son performing in Hamlet 2 because he’s a lit professor and a novelist, and he thinks the new play is garbage. Also counter to the typical inspirational teacher movie, instead of serving as the first stable force in the students’ lives, Marschz is always teetering precipitously on the brink of madness — to the point where his students soberly discuss whether he might in fact be bipolar.
These students are played mostly by unknowns, but the actors are well-chosen and familiar in the way of the kids in Summer School or School of Rock. They are only one part of the appealingly offbeat supporting cast that backs Coogan up, though. Catherine Keener, who plays the disenchanted wife, proves herself in this movie to be right up there with Catherine O’Hara as one of the all-time great film drunks. Elizabeth Shue plays a version of herself as retired and relocated to Tucson to work as a nurse, which, sadly, must be the Academy Award nominated actress’ most winning role in some time. David Arquette (who has very slowly and quietly become Matt LeBlanc right before our eyes) doesn’t need to do much here, and he doesn’t, but he does it well. Also not required to reach too deep into her bag of tricks, finally, is the ever-plucky Amy Poehler, who shows up for the third act of the movie ready to party.
Very much like Waiting for Guffman and The Producers, the middle section of Hamlet 2 glides by en route to revealing this insane play we’ve only gotten glimpses of so far. The major burden of any movie centered on characters staging a spectacle is that the movie’s success also hinges on the quality of that spectacle. Directors who embark on such films are on the hook for a barnstorming blowout just as much as their characters are. The same pressure that drives Steve Coogan’s high school drama teacher in the movie also demands that the filmmakers deliver the goods in a big finish. On that score, Hamlet 2 does not disappoint — fulfilling with great aplomb all expectations of the promised bananacakes fiasco. Props to whoever was in charge of set design.
Pam Brady also obviously has a way with a musical number that’s similar to her former co-workers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. If there’s one thing people remember about this movie’s short-lived theatrical run, it’s that it was preceded by a marketing blitz which ensured that everyone who got within channel-changing distance of a TV in the weeks before Hamlet 2’s release would be intimately familiar with one of its songs. Fortunately, three years later, the song “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is still funny and catchy, even when you’re expecting it. Considering how well that other South Park-affiliated musical is doing on stage right now, perhaps it’s time to follow a winning example and launch Hamlet 2 Off-Broadway. Maybe then it would get the second life it deserves (just as Sexy Jesus did.)