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"HAMLET 2"
(2008) (Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A down on his luck high school drama teacher writes and tries to stage a production of his musical sequel to "Hamlet."
PLOT:
Former aspiring but talentless actor Dana Marschz (STEVE COOGAN) now teaches drama at Tucson, Arizona's West Mesa High School. Married to Brie (CATHERINE KEENER) but unable to father a child with her, and having to roller skate everywhere due to having lost his drivers license in the past, he's now been forced to take in a boarder, Gary (DAVID ARQUETTE), to help make ends meet.

Things aren't much better at school. While he has two enthusiastic students in his class, Rand (SKYLAR ASTIN) and Epiphany (PHOEBE STROLE), his musical versions of popular Hollywood films such as "Erin Brockovich" are repeatedly savaged by the ninth grade drama critic, Noah Sapperstein (SHEA PEPE). And it doesn't help that he gets no support from Principal Rocker (MARSHALL BELL) who informs Dana that this year's drama program, now taught in the school cafeteria, will be the last due to budget cutbacks.

To make matters worse, his "classroom" has been taken over by a bunch of apparent troublemakers, including Octavio (JOSEPH JULIAN SORIA), Ivonne (MELONIE DIAZ), Chuy (MICHAEL ESPARZA) and Yolanda (NATALIE AMENULA) among others, who initially show no interest in what he's offering.

Yet, he perseveres, in highly dramatic fashion, and has his spirits lifted when he meets former Hollywood actress turned fertility clinic nurse Elisabeth Shue (ELISABETH SHUE). Inspired by her and Noah's earlier advice to do something original, Dana comes up with the idea to do a musical sequel to Shakespeare's "Hamlet," where a time-traveling device will get around the tricky issue of all the deaths in the original. The fact that it also contains a musical number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" eventually gets the community up in arms and the production kicked off the school property.

With ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (AMY POEHLER) showing up to support his freedom of speech rights, Dana and his unlikely cast forge ahead with their plans on staging their controversial musical.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Ah, high school drama. No, I'm not referring to the soap opera world of the 18 and under set, but rather theater as performed by secondary school students. Usually a Petri dish of putrid performances reeking of amateurism trying to recreate famous (and often not-so-famous) Broadway and Shakespearean works, such performances occasionally will create some sort of future talent, but mainly end up as nails down the blackboard experiences best suited for and only attended by friends and family.

That's especially the case when it comes to musicals (since they not only require acting, but also the ability to sing and sometimes dance). Yet, the thought of "high school musical" got a big boost in terms of public relations thanks to the Disney TV movie of the same name, along with its sequel.

Accordingly, one may wonder what "Hamlet 2" might similarly do for the world of high school adaptations of the Bard's work. Granted, Shakespeare aficionados and anyone who might remember having seen or read that tragedy way back when know that the ending doesn't exactly lend itself to a sequel. Yet, that doesn't deter Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a high school drama teacher at a Tucson high school.

A one-time aspiring actor with little to no talent (we see his efforts in the biz -- an infomercial, a Herpes medication TV spot, a bit part on a warrior princess TV show -- all while a solemn narrator discusses the craft of acting), he now puts on stage adaptations of famous Hollywood movies such as "Erin Brockovich," only to be skewered (and then some) by the school's diminutive but erudite student critic (Shea Pepe).

It's the latter who tells the talentless drama teacher and director (who roller skates everywhere due to a past DUI and has taken in a boarder -- David Arquette -- to help pay the rent, a development his "I want to have a baby now" wife -- Catherine Keener -- can't stand) that he should try something new. Thus the genesis of the "Hamlet" sequel.

If all of that sounds a bit whacky and satirical, well, that's because it is. Yet, for all of the efforts by Coogan and the rest of the cast (including Amy Poehler as an anti-Semitic ACLU lawyer), as well as writer/director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady, the film is an uneven, hit and miss affair. Some parts are truly inspired, particularly Coogan's terrific performance at least until the end when he plays a time-traveling Jesus in the musical within the film and strangely falls flat after being so right-on up until that point.

Other moments are briefly hilarious, but the rest range from mediocre to flat (including a bit that's funny when it starts -- Elisabeth Shue playing herself having given up acting for nursing -- but then goes nowhere). The satirical targets are numerous (high school theater and all of its trappings, obviously, but also public funding for the arts: people with thin skin when it comes to religion; Hollywood; and much more), but similarly are a mixed bag when it comes to delivering the goods and eliciting knowing and/or big laughs from the viewer.

The most notable part -- for the controversy it will likely create -- is the full-blown musical number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," a doo-wop type song featuring Coogan in a tank-top, jeans and long hair that's a satire on today's pop icons not to mention the religiously rigid). It turns out to be a catchy little tune that's actually reverent in its own unique way and thankfully helps wipe clean the more serious (and offensive) musical number about getting raped in the face that precedes it.

If one fully bought into the satirical aura enveloping the offering, it could be argued that the final product's unevenness is actually a parody of the same thing occurring in the world of theater and/or film. More realistic minds will see through that, however, and likely wish that the cast and crew could have managed a more constant level of smarts and jocularity. Not a tragedy by any means, "Hamlet 2" is funny, but feels somewhat slapped together, much like the musical of the same name within it. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 21, 2008 / Posted August 27, 2008


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