Photograph by Kathy Kanavy
DANE BY ANOTHER NAME: Steve Coogan plays a frustrated actor named Dana doing Shakespeare in 'Hamlet 2.'
'Hamlet 2' mocks actors and the immortal Bard, but it's no 'Waiting for Guffman'
By Richard von Busack
REWATCHING the prime election-year comedy Used Cars (1980), I was struck again by how well director Robert Zemeckis uses the forlornness of a really vanquished desert town. Filming in the outskirts of Phoenix, Zemeckis made the ambient corruption visual. Twin used-car lots represented our political parties: the pluralistic but battered "New Deal Used Cars"; and a shiny, remorseless and greedy Republican "Roy L. Fuchs' Previously Owned Autos" directly across the street.
Since Hamlet 2 also tries to engage in the culture wars, too bad the much-hyped comedy doesn't evince that similar sense of place—or of ruthlessness. Set in Tucson but shot in New Mexico, Hamlet 2 is supposed to take place in a dull desert hellhole that's absolute death for someone without a car. The utterly inept but obsessed high school drama teacher Dana (Steve Coogan) lost his license for drunk driving; he commutes to school on roller skates, sometimes wearing a caftan to try to pamper his testicles. His wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), yearns to have a baby and snarls at him to do something about getting his sperm count up.
Dana's work is not going well. His decision to adapt prestige films (such as Erin Brockovich) for the high school stage draws the scorn of the high school newspaper critic (Shea Pepe). (A great idea, a teenage Addison DeWitt, but like many great ideas in Hamlet 2, there's no follow-through.) The students aren't interested in Dana's accounts of his brushes with great actors. Moreover, budget cutbacks threaten to eliminate his class.
Since he is about to lose his job anyway, Dana hatches the idea of putting on one last great musical spectacular, a sequel to Hamlet that he will write himself. The fact that the major characters end up dead in the last scene does not dissuade the teacher. Kicked off-campus for this bad idea, Dana manages to get a space out near the railroad tracks. The last third of the film follows the familiar trail of the show getting on the road, despite the usual obstacles.
At last, even blasphemy can turn out to be unfunny. But is this blasphemy? Hamlet 2's already famous musical number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," celebrates Christ for his coolness; change the terms, and it's still hymn. Director Andrew Fleming finds himself in the unenviable situation of trying to top Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler."
Moreover, Fleming doesn't build up the play within the movie. Hamlet 2 shows the intelligence of Christopher Guest's approach in Waiting for Guffman, telling tales of deluded Z-level showbiz folks in the form of a cryptodocumentary. In a sequence of interviews and live action, it's easier to present the major numbers. Pity we don't really get to see enough of Hamlet 2 the play to see how it works: we only get short excerpts of Hamlet and Jesus riding together in a time machine to rescue the Dane's parents—certainly a novel theme for a play. As his name suggests, Dana himself is a Hamlet with melancholy parental issues, the reason for his stunted growth.
There's a school of thought that argues that Steve Coogan can do anything. He has the look of a matinee idol in which something went too extreme somewhere—the profile turned rodenty and gawky instead of pointed as a poniard; the long hair looks scruffy instead of romantic. Coogan could burlesque a normal puffy-pants Hamlet. But he is not the kind of actor who really could carry this entire film off and make the transition from a clueless idiot to a hero.
That actor would be Martin Short, whose career-long exploration of deluded show-business types could have provided the wire to electrify Hamlet 2. As a talented sketch artist trying to make this a multifaceted romp, Coogan is too eager to please. Dana ought to be enough of a public outrage that we would feel good when he earns his slapstick beatings.
Seeing a teacher in a middling-bad high school get the works is funny to high school students. But the students don't get it in the neck as often as the teacher does; this is a film, as they used to say, that knows what side its bread is buttered on. Dana's students, with the exception of two backward theater-arts regulars, are all supposed to be authentically cool: they're mostly stereotypical urban gangbangers. This comedy, which ought to have a real ensemble of insane types, gives the sense of one major actor and a classroom full of reactors.
Later, Fleming tries to twit the ACLU by bringing in an obnoxious civil-rights lawyer, Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), to protect Dana from the wrath of the fundamentalists and the authorities. Poehler's monologues exist to give the right wing some of its own back, but they're crudely obvious.
Only one actor in this movie about acting warms things up. Elisabeth Shue plays herself. She claims that she grew sick of Hollywood and moved to Arizona to become a nurse. Shue has a charming line about what she misses the most from being a movie star: "Kissing all of those cute actors."
Otherwise Pam Brady's script (co-written with Fleming) is like outtakes from South Park, for which she has been a writer for years. The locations seem about as two-dimensional as the cartoon landscapes in the town of South Park, too. Strange how easy it is to turn a landscape into a cartoon, and how difficult it is to do it the other way around.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.