Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Written by: Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming
Starring: Steve Coogan, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Melonie Diaz, Arnie Pantoja, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue
Released: 2008 / Genre: Comedy / Country: USA
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Hamlet 2 is a difficult movie to discuss because it doesn’t know what it wants to be. A bit like Steve Coogan’s American accent. At times it appears to want you to care about these characters (when the brilliant Catherine Keener tells Coogan she’s leaving him for their mute lodger, for example) but since it takes hardly anything seriously you couldn’t give two hoots. The reoccurring joke surrounding another mute character (what gripe have writers Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming got against people who just like to keep their mouth shut) getting hit in the head, knocked over, and meeting with some unsavoury accidents grates due to its pointlessness. It’s also only mildly funny the first time. Second, third, and fourth and I’m reaching for the NoDoz. So, as the name suggests, Hamlet 2 takes everything with a pinch of salt. When it is satirising popular culture, cinema, the business of acting, it’s on to a winner. When it’s being postmodern and self-aware it’s engaging and inventive. But it doesn’t do this enough, and wavers too often on sub-plots that feel like tacked on anarchy than cohesive character progression. And, by the time the film turns into Waiting For Guffman you realise Christopher Guest has been here already and accomplished it so much better.
Steve Coogan is Dana Marschz (his last name becomes one of the film’s first reoccurring jokes where no one can pronounce it correctly), a drama teacher at a cash-strapped high school in Tucson, Arizona. Dana has issues. He’s become disillusioned with the acting business after a string of bit-parts and cheesy commercials. But he has an eager passion for the art and that comes out in his theatrical plays based on popular movies. When the school cuts the budget further, he finds his drama class is filled with new students wanting an easy ride. Inspired by virtue of having 20 students instead of 2, he begins preparing for his latest production – a futuristic update on the Hamlet story. When the school get wind of the script – featuring violence, sex, blasphemy, and whole heap of other ‘un-Christian’ activities, they try to shut him down. This becomes big news in the town. And, for a wannabe theatre veteran like Dana the show must go on.
There is a moment around a quarter of the way through the film when I finally felt I knew where the story was coming from. Dana is busying himself writing the new screenplay for Hamlet 2. There is an immediacy to his creative angst and you learn he has underlying regret about his relationship with his father. Coogan lets Dana’s eccentricities come out, and suddenly he’s gone from the likable one-dimensional drama teacher to someone as tragic as the titular character whose story he is updating. Suffice to say, it is Coogan who makes this film worth seeing. His faux American accent wavers at times, and mostly feels unnaturalised, but he brings the oddball, offbeat characteristic he so frequently exhibited in his British television comedies to the film with fine results.
But the film’s humour takes some getting used to. When Elizabeth Shue turns up as a nurse (and your brain says: hey, that’s Elizabeth Shue from 80s classics like Adventures In Babysitting and Karate Kid) and Dana says, “I’m sorry to be so forward, but you look a lot like my favourite actress of all time, Elisabeth Shue”, you are at once taken out of story and thrust right back into it. Its self-reflexive nature may make you feel like you’re watching a film parodying itself, but it also has a gleeful self-defeating sensibility that you rarely see in American movies.
The film falls down largely because you don’t care what happens to these characters. Despite Coogan’s spirited performance, his plight is cobbled together by sketches, mishaps, and motivation borrowed from other movies. Also it isn’t half as funny as it should be, with many skits overused or poorly conceived. If you consider the story is part Dangerous Minds, part Footloose, and a whole lot of Waiting For Guffman, but doesn’t come close to the quality of any, you go a long way to summing up the film. Coogan and his personification of Dana provide all the highlights and there’s enough of them to give Hamlet 2 a go, but as was exampled by its delayed and finally cancelled UK release, the film is a difficult sell.
Review by Daniel Stephens
Interview with Steve Coogan at Film School Rejects
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