An unwaveringly optimistic school teacher tries to inspire a rag-tag group of high school drama class kids in Hamlet 2, a funny, inspired riff on uptight middle America and its intolerance of controversial art. That sounds fairly serious, but the movie is anything but, relying on everything from toilet jokes to a blue jean-clad Jesus for laughs.
Dana Marschz (the cosmically talented Steve Coogan), a failed actor who starred in herpes commercials and Xena episodes, has semi-retired to Tucson, Ariz., as a high school drama teacher. His stage adaptations of big screen hits like Dead Poet’s Society and Erin Brockovich have made him the scorn of faculty members and the school newspaper’s adolescent critic. When the district threatens to shut down the drama department, Dana decides to take matters into his own hands and write an original dramatic work for the class.
He comes up with Hamlet 2, where the Shakespearean figure travels through time with Jesus to save the lives of everybody who died in Hamlet. The show, which is quite awful, includes the musical number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” which features Coogan as the Son of Man in a wifebeater shirt, kicking Satan’s ass. Dana’s students are confused, his bosses are outraged, and his wife (Catherine Keener) just doesn’t get it.
Dana is banned from the school cafeteria, where his drama class usually convenes, because the lunch ladies find him distracting. The production sets up shop in an old warehouse, and when word gets out on the show’s content, all hell breaks lose. The media swarms Dana and his cast, and the American Civil Liberties Union sends out a lawyer (Amy Poehler, in her funniest screen role yet) to make sure the show goes off without a hitch.
In one of the greater jokes of the movie year, actress Elisabeth Shue plays herself, having retired from acting to become a nurse. Dana, a ridiculously loyal fan, discovers her at the hospital and gets her to speak to his class and attend the show. Shue’s willingness to poke fun at Hollywood and herself is both refreshing and uproarious. The fact that she wears her nurse’s uniform to the class and the show is a great touch. It’s a bold and funny poke at Hollywood stardom, and Shue totally embraces it.
Coogan is consistently funny as Dana, a man so driven he can’t see that his play is terrible, a blindness that turns out to be a good thing in the end. As Dana’s wife, Catherine Keener brings her usual large dose of class and talent to the proceedings. She’s especially good in a drunken restaurant scene where she takes Dana to task. David Arquette manages some good laughs in a mostly silent role as the couple’s roommate.
The film has many outlandish touches that give it a welcome bizarre vibe. The Tucson Gay Man’s chorus belting out “Maniac” would be one of them, as would the surprisingly upscale home environment for one of Dana’s tougher and more troubled students. Dana’s battles with the school’s critic, Noah Sapperstein, played by the very young looking Shea Pepe, are epic.
It’s also a nice twist that the final production of the show is visually and sonically pleasing. Dana and his cast have put plenty of thought into lighting and staging their opus. Ophelia’s rescue from drowning, featuring student Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) twirling in front of a huge projected ocean, is actually quite effective. And, yes, the number for “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” is good enough to warrant real Oscar consideration. Hey, if South Park‘s “Blame Canada” can get a nod, why not “Sexy Jesus"?
The summer is turning out to be a good one for comedies, with Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder and now this. That’s three really good comedies in one month’s time, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. We have been cinematically blessed.