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Hamlet 2 /

Rated: R

Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, Melonie Diaz

Directed by: Andrew Fleming

Produced by: Eric D. Eisner, Leonid Rozhetskin, Aaron Ryder
Written by: Andrew Fleming, Pam Brady
Distributor: Focus Features

     Like The Rocker, another one of this late-August cinematic-dumping-ground weekend’s many releases, Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 is a tough movie to review in that it’s a straightforward comedy that doesn’t attempt anything earth-shattering, stylistically or substantively. How much can I blabber on about a motion-picture that I don’t aggressively hate and, at the same time, don’t find to be particularly striking? What I can say about Hamlet 2, however, is that it’s actually funny, a trait that instantly separates it from the rest of said dumping-ground’s film crop, especially the aforementioned stale Rainn Wilson vehicle.

     Lead actor Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a high-school drama teacher who routinely churns out theatrical-interpretations of Hollywood movies that nobody sees or participates in and even the shrimp of a school-newspaper critic hates. (The viewer is offered a glimpse of his take on Erin Brockovich.) Due to the lack of interest in his program, Dana is told that Drama will be axed from the curriculum at the end of the year and with it will go his job. Desperate to save his career and his class, he rallies his newfound unenthused Hispanic students (who are only taking the course because all the other electives have been cancelled) to put on a sequel to Hamlet in which the many dead characters from Shakespeare’s original work return to the stage in a time-machine to (among other things) sing and dance with Jesus and Hillary Clinton.

     In his most bombastic role since his movie-stealing turn opposite Alfred Molina in 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Coogan is the most prominent reason for Hamlet 2’s success in spite of its simple nature. He plays his character in a subdued fashion, but hits all the right subtle notes along the way. Consider, for example, a sequence of clips in which Dana writes the script for his gotta-be-stellar play. Coogan turns something so simple as the look of confusion his character exhibits while staring into a blank, uninspiring computer-screen—and pet-cat when the animal enters the frame—into a tremendously entertaining action. There isn’t anything especially remarkable about his face-work during the bit, but it’s goofy and unique and highly amusing, certainly good enough to sustain a few minutes of screen-time. Coogan maintains the same sort of moment-for-moment exuberance throughout Hamlet 2, becoming audaciously effective as he is allowed to become increasingly ridiculous as the movie progresses. When it’s time for Dana’s play, which becomes incredibly controversial due to its sexual and sacrilegious content, to be performed, Coogan’s work is nearly electrifying.

     Outside of Coogan’s central tour-de-force, Hamlet 2 overcomes the trappings of its conventional structure by always offering engaging and quirky supporting characters. First introduced are Brie (Catherine Keener), Dana’s distant hippy-dippy wife, and Gary (David Arquette), the boarder the couple has taken in as a means of supplementing Dana’s low income from teaching. Not too long into the movie, it becomes obvious that Brie and Gary will have an affair, which isn’t very funny in and of itself given that it isn’t our sympathetic protagonist’s best interest, but it comes across as such because of the way that Keener and Arquette deliver the material. Fleming and South Park scribe Pam Brady’s script lends itself to such an approach.

     Also spicing matters up are Dana’s most memorable new students, Yolanda (Natalie Amenula) and Ivonne (Melonie Diaz). The former character awakened me to the fact that slapsticky gags that force a person to fall in every way humanly possible can still be handled in an amusing manner; between Amenula’s performance and the situations developed, Yolanda’s chronic (and sometimes hard-hitting) slips pack an unexpectedly riotous punch. Most of the intrigue concerning Ivonne generates from Diaz’ performance, which further proves that the young actress has a bright future ahead of her in Hollywood. Diaz is effortlessly charming in one of the film’s smallest but most memorable roles.

     Rounding out the notable list of supporting cast-members, SNL’s Amy Poehler puts on a scene-stealing performance as an ACLU attorney who comes to Dana’s aid when his play is shunned by conservative school-board members and parents. (Did I mention that musical accompaniment for the already-subversive material is provided by the local Tucson, Arizona Gay Men’s Chorus, which looks every bit like you’d picture it?) The character doesn’t lend to the movie forming an external political-position on censorship, wisely functioning as a tool for Fleming and Brady to poke fun at both the Right and the Left by highlighting the lunacy of what could very well pass for a real ACLU-battle. Poehler hilariously plays the attorney as a conniving attention-grabber, desperate to go after anyone who might be opposed to Dana’s “expression of free speech.” She’s frantically outrageous and consistently hysterical.

    Oh, and then there’s Elizabeth Shue playing herself as a washed-up actress who goes into nursing to get away from the spotlight! But I’ll let you experience that story-thread for yourself. Impressively zany as it is—especially in terms of Coogan’s interaction with Shue—I can’t say it leaves much room for critical analysis.

     Looking back at the first paragraph of this review, I realize I may have been foolish in predicting that it would be a difficult one to write. Yes, Hamlet 2 may be similar to The Rocker (which was nearly impossible to waste 600+ words on) in that it doesn’t take any big chances. However, I think I overlooked the film in claiming that I didn’t find it “particularly striking.” The reason that it is funny is that it is fresh; this just isn’t readily apparent because the movie discovers said freshness in unexpected places, not in story-based flourishes. In fact, the review has come to me rather easily because I like a lot of small things about the movie. Hamlet 2 may not amount to much in the end, but it’s humorous and thoughtful enough to pass for a welcome artistic diversion.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 8.22.2008

Screened on: 8.13.2008 at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego, CA.


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