19 August 2008

Hamlet 2

Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Written by: Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming
Full credits from IMDb

As should be obvious from its title, Hamlet 2 is a comedy, though it packs a subtle seriousness. First, the comedy. Steve Coogan stars as a bad actor, in exile from Hollywood and teaching high school drama in that most godforsaken of places—Tuscon, Arizona. Though designed as a star vehicle for Coogan, providing him the opportunity to American-accent his affable but irascibly defensive Alan Partridge persona, Hamlet 2 is stolen by Catherine Keener as his passive-aggressive, alcoholic wife. Still, she’s not in many scenes, so Coogan ultimately carries the film. While it features some physical gags and comic signage, Hamlet 2 thrives comedically, above all, in Coogan’s face; 90% of the picture seems shot from his shoulders on up. Aside from his multiple BBC series, the actor made his mark with a pair of seriocomic roles in Michael Winterbottom films, 2002’s 24 Hour Party People and 2005’s Tristram Shandy, and though here he has little straight drama to handle, it’s his ability to overact, to overblow the wrong emotions in the wrong scenes that makes Hamlet 2 funny: the way he explodes at a 14-year-old drama critic or collapses in self-pity when told that, due to budget cuts, drama will be cut from the curriculum.

A musical that his character has written, a sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy, is his one chance to attract attention and maybe save the program. With his theater class full of forcibly registered, mostly-apathetic Hispanics, Hamlet 2 follows the Take the Lead trajectory. Or, it’s School of Rock, but un-Disneyfied; it builds not to a sappy finale but to bigger and bolder things—a finale of almost “Springtime for Hitler” proportions. (While The Producers came too soon, Hamlet 2 builds up to its biggest joke, as a comedy should.) Hamlet 2 uses the Hollywood clich├ęs only to get by; it’s more at home sending them up—Coogan invokes everything from Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dead Poet’s Society to Dangerous Minds while struggling with his students, exposing those films’ artificiality. Burning beneath the film is a bitter Hollywood critique, not only of phony films and pretentious actors (a la the recent Tropic Thunder) but also of the system’s cruelty, best expressed by Elisabeth Shue, playing herself and frequently railing against the studio system.

But it’s not in its movie biz opprobrium that the film finds its poignancy, but rather in “Hamlet 2,” the play within the film—the thing wherein Coogan will catch his own conscience. Or subconscious. In the musical, Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses a time machine to travel back in time and save the first play’s befallen. (Along the way, Einstein and Christ show up, too.) Though largely a vehicle for a handful of comic songs—“Raped in the Face” and “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” stand out—the filmmakers use the show to underplayed dramatic effect, conflating Hamlet’s daddy issues with Jesus’. And Coogan’s. The Danish Prince, in tears, forgiving his father, followed soon after by Coogan as Christ doing the same, provides a surprising amount of unforced feeling. That’s the seriousness. But the filmmakers, craftily, never take themselves as seriously as I might. During all that “I forgive you, papa!” business, Fleming cuts to the high school’s crusty principal. (Think the mean ol’ dean from a college comedy.) My father molested me as a child, he says with graceful comic phrasing, adding, Maybe that’s why I’m so mean. As such, Hamlet 2 mocks the sudden revelations and easy answers to which Hollywood can so often, so unfortunately, be prone. Grade: B+

Watch the (not very funny) red-band trailer:

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