Hamlet 2 belongs firmly to Steve Coogan, which is fortunate since none of the film’s supporting players prove to be the least bit memorable. And though it’s rather difficult for a single talent to carry a successful comic enterprise, Coogan comes awfully close. Playing Dana Marschz, a stubbornly committed high-school drama teacher, the British cult favorite moves easily from irrepressible enthusiasm (he intones “To act is to live” with nary a hint of irony) to crippling insecurity to vulgar exclamation, all the while maintaining a very thin shred of dignity beneath his long clumps of blond hair and emotive sad-sack demeanor. Whether gushing over some bit of Hollywood trash (Patch Adams?!) or donning a loose-fitting caftan to combat a low sperm count, Marschz is lovably pathetic, his misplaced enthusiasms nicely balanced by an endearing earnestness. If none of the rest of the cast, from Marschz’s bullying alcoholic wife (played by Catherine Keener) to her dumb jock boyfriend (David Arquette) to Amy Poehler’s shit-kicking ACLU lawyer manages to offer any real comedic support, at least Coogan seems in little need of assistance.
Taking as its cue Marschz’s enthusiasm for “inspirational teacher” movies, the film’s narrative unfolds as a knowing send-up of that genre. Coogan’s character can’t even manage to make a go of his unglamorous profession as his annual school production (which he always adapts from a Hollywood blockbuster) is continually roasted by the school paper’s poison-penned critic (a baby-faced ninth-grader) and he finds himself threatened with the elimination of his department from a philistine principal. Saddled with a classful of unenthusiastic ghetto thugs, Marschz sets about winning them over by casting them in his first original play, the provocatively titled Hamlet 2. Here the film’s narrative setup (familiar from any number of white-teacher-inspiring-underprivileged-students movies) both parodies and affirms the ability of art to paper over social difference, a concept that the film seems to both take seriously and gleefully rip to shreds.
Initially, writer-director Andrew Fleming seems concerned with critiquing (or at least having some fun with) the dictates of the inspirational teacher genre. In one sequence, tweaking the conventions set in place by both Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds (two of Marschz’s favorites), the star of the school play—a tough-guy Latino who everyone assumes is a gang-banger—reveals that his parents won’t let him appear in the play. When Marschz visits his house, he finds that not only is the student far from being a desperate thug (he comes from a literary upper-middle-class family and he’s been early-accepted to Brown), but that the parent’s objections are based not on any kind of “ethnic narrow-mindedness” but on the play’s substandard literary merits. But as much fun as Fleming has with this generic twisting in the film’s early going, he seems impatient to move the film along toward the promised super production that signals its climax, and rather than offer any further critique of the genre, Hamlet 2 soon settles into an easy embrace of its conventions, speeding its narrative along according to the familiar patterns: the teacher bridging the cultural gap with the students, administrative opposition finally overcome, a smooth path to the picture’s conclusion ever in sight.
All of which brings us to that 15-minute show-stopping sequence in which, all narrative obstacles neatly dispensed with, the production of Hamlet 2 finally sees the light of day. Bringing together the melancholic Dane with Jesus Christ and a bicurious Laertes, the epic staging takes in some heavy father issues, time travel, light saber fights and a gay men’s chorus, while featuring a light display to put any Pink Floyd laser show to shame and introducing the sure-to-be-a-hit musical number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” Personally, I preferred the more modest earlier segments in which the film’s one true asset (Coogan) wasn’t hidden behind a Jesus beard and forced to sing dopey songs, but by all means let Fleming have his fun. Hamlet 2‘s spectacle is at least as good as the average Broadway musical and if it isn’t any more profound at least it’s considerably more diverting.