Anybody who got their extracurricular kicks painting flats in high-school drama class or who never got to see much prime-time TV because of an addiction to community theater will gobble up every minute of Hamlet 2 with reckless abandon. If you’re one of them, you should consider nudging this review’s popcorn rating up a notch. If you’ve never been bitten by the drama bug, then Hamlet 2 may strike you about like a comic riff on the hilarity of metal shop or home economics. Still, if you remember high school at all, you probably knew a teacher or two who were at least a little bit like Dana Marschz.
Dana (Steve Coogan) is a living illustration of Shaw’s snide dictum: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Once an aspiring actor, Dana’s pathetic career peaked with commercials for the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer and a herpes medication (“I’m having an outbreak right now—but you’d never know it. Thanks, Herpecol!”).
Having failed to “do,” Dana is now failing to teach, at West Mesa High School in Tucson, Ariz. Director and co-writer (with Pam Brady) Andrew Fleming gives us a quick overview of how Dana’s life has bottomed out: He has to commute to work on roller skates because he can’t afford a car. He and his disgruntled wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, hilarious), have been forced to take in a hyperboring housemate named Gary (David Arquette, who, if memory serves, doesn’t utter a word in the entire movie). And the shows Dana produces at school are slavish adaptations of hit movies (the most recent is Erin Brockovich) that can’t even get a decent review from the school paper’s ninth-grade critic, Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe). Dana’s conversations with Noah make it painfully clear, even to Dana, that the kid knows more about good theater than he does.
The crushing blow comes when the school’s principal (Marshall Bell) coldly tells Dana that the drama program, and Dana’s job, will be eliminated at the end of the semester. And for this last term, his two die-hard students—the closet gay Rand (Skylar Astin) and the Jesus freak Epiphany (Phoebe Strole)—have been joined by a bunch of hard-boiled Hispanics with no interest in drama; one of them, Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), identifies himself to Dana as “Haywood Jablowme.”
Encouraged by the not-unsympathetic Noah, Dana scraps his planned adaptation of Dead Poets Society in favor of an original work—a sequel to Hamlet. But wait, didn’t everybody die at the end? No problem; Dana’s Hamlet 2 will involve Hamlet using a time machine to go back and fix everything (“The time is out of joint … ”), with the help of Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Jesus and others. In fact, when the principal gets wind that the show will include a musical number called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” the show is banned from campus and becomes a pet cause of the ACLU, represented by Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler, appropriately chirpy).
Fleming and Brady reach fearlessly—sometimes even desperately—for laughs. They make a running gag out of Dana’s unpronounceable last name. They make a nurse at Dana and Brie’s fertility clinic turn out to be the actress Elisabeth Shue (Elisabeth Shue herself, being a good sport). They have Dana cast his show with the Tuscon Gay Men’s Chorus, which has about eight members (and does a pretty good job on Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”). Fleming and Brady will try anything.
Brady’s experience includes last year’s Hot Rod, which had some of the same anything-for-a-laugh eagerness. This time, however, more of the gags are funny to begin with—and, not to mince words, the director and cast are simply better (Coogan is certainly a more appealing leading man than Andy Samberg); Fleming and his cast can put over more of the weaker gags, and they can make the strong ones even funnier.
The climax of Hamlet 2, naturally, is Dana’s Hamlet 2, the play within the film. And if the show is better than Dana Marschz and his high-school talent pool have led us to expect, there’s at least a precedent for it. After all, the movie around the play is better than we expected, too.