Hamlet 2: Ballsy comedy and inspirational movie spoof

posted 2/22/09 on 2009: A Film Odyssey

Once upon a time three semesters ago I took a Shakespeare class to fulfill a requirement for English minors. When reading the syllabus I sort of nodded my head in vague recognition of the book titles. Sure, I’d heard of Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet First Quarto edition, Hamlet Folio edition . . . Wait, what? Two versions of Hamlet? I thought reading two plays with the same characters and plot would bore me out of my mind, but actually I enjoyed discovering the subtle differences. It’s interesting to think how there is no truly definitive version of what many call the English language’s greatest play.

Incidentally, last year’s Hamlet 2, backed by the same producers as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), has little in common with either of those two versions of Hamlet. And yet, I think that if William Shakespeare traveled to the 21st century with a time machine (like the characters in the movie’s bizarre play), he would have to appreciate the cutting-edge, unapologetic humor of Andrew Fleming (co-writer and director) and Pam Brady’s (co-writer) indie movie sequel.


THE FILM

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) pretty much fails at life. Hailing from an abusive home in Manitoba, Dana decides to move to the States to become an actor so he can vent his frustrations on the stage. Problem is, he’s a hack, which only compounds his torment. His unsupportive wife Brie (Catherine Keener) and numbskull boarder Gary (David Arquette) are not making life any easier.

He lands a couple commercial parts as a spokesman for a herpes medication and a side bit in the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer infomercial, but when that well runs dry, he takes a job as drama instructor at a high school in Tuscon, Arizona — a town the film humorously depicts as riddled with bigots and Christian fundamentalists (which necessitated that Fleming and Brady shoot in Albuquerque instead). After the school newspaper drama critic cans a two-actor stage adaptation of Erin Brockavitch (2000), Dana enters crisis mode. Could it be that he needs to come up with his own original material? He consults his tiny critic and suddenly hatches a new idea that the boy says is so stupid it might just work: a sequel to Hamlet!

The premise of his postmodern play is not all that important. It involves Hamlet traveling back in time to save everyone in Shakespeare’s play from being killed, as well as the musical numbers “Raped in the Face” and “Rock me, Sexy Jesus.” Somehow group sex, a battle of Jesus versus Satan, Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Albert Einstein (wearing an E=MC squared t-shirt) are involved. The whole production is intentionally bizarre and offensive (as is Hamlet 2 as a whole), and so ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) must defend Dana’s right to free speech before the school board and the public.

Racial conflict also comes into play when Dana’s sheltered, white teacher’s pets have to come to terms with dozens of Latino students (whom they assume are all thugs) signing up to be in the play. Evidently the other arts classes they were interested in were canceled due to poor funding, which is about to be the case for the school’s theater department unless Dana’s play can raise at least $6000. And when the play’s lead actor Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) quits because his parents forced him to, Dana — in that great tradition of inspirational movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) and Deat Poets Society (1989) — makes a visit to convince Octavio’s ostensibly brutish parents to let the boy make art . . . only to find out that his father is a career novelist and his mother is a celebrated painter with works displayed in the Guggenheim. They disapprove because the play is poorly written and absurd, not because they despise theater.

All in all, Hamlet 2 is hilariously random in its plotting and fearless in its presentation. I get the sense that if people take up arms against its alternative vision of Christ or abundance of un-PC jokes, well, Brady and Fleming really don’t give a damn.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Audio commentary with Fleming and Brady.
  • A deleted scene where Dana chastises Brie for talking down to Gary, then encourages her to love him. And so she does, in a very physical way.
  • Singalongs to “Raped in the Face” and “Rock me, Sexy Jesus,” which, by the way, gets really annoying if you let the DVD menu loop the song excerpt enough times.
  • A side-by-side comparison of Dana’s Brockavitch adaptation with the real thing.
  • A two-part making-of segment where Brady and Fleming discuss how Hamlet 2 was a labor of love five years in the making due to its wild storyline and irreverent humor. Highlights include Coogan’s interruptions of other actors’ interviews and Brady’s discussion of how the character of Dana is a mockery of the inspirational “white teacher going into a black classroom to tell them how to learn” flicks.


HIGHLIGHTS

The high school play debut, which took up most of the movie’s last 20 minutes, was a blast in its entirety. I also enjoyed Poehler’s snarky ACLU lawyer. She doesn’t really care whether or not the play sucks as long as the First Amendment case makes national headlines — and therefore big bucks and fame.


LOWLIGHTS

Dana’s gags seem annoying at first — until you realize they’re intentionally annoying. In my opinion, it’s a difficult movie to dive into, but you grow into appreciation as you watch.


VERDICT

It’s worth renting for the play portion alone. The rest is just icing on the cake. And believe you me, there’s a lot of icing — not too surprising once you remember Brady was one of the brains behind South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police.


STATS

Rated 63% on RottenTomatoes
Running time: 92 minutes
Rated R


COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

The Counterfeiters. I missed the opportunity to see this at Boardman’s and am finally getting around to renting it.