September 4, 2008

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Hamlet 2 (R)
An untalented actor-turned-drama-teacher tries to save his high school’s drama department by producing his own play, a sequel to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Hamlet 2, a movie which, I have to say, still has me occasionally singing “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” in my head.

That big musical number does indeed feature Jesus wearing jeans, showing off his biceps and grooving, “Greased Lightning”-style, in front of some suped up cars, but it really is quite a catchy little song. You could say the same about the movie itself — even its stupider aspects have a way of getting their hooks into you.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is an exceptionally bad actor who (in addition to appearing in such commercials as one for herpes medication) has taken his “talents” to a high school where he is known for producing especially awful plays that are adaptations of Hollywood movies. He is savaged by the “critics” (a particularly astute writer for the high school paper) and threatened with being laid off by a school district looking to cut electives to make up for a budget crunch. (And his is the last elective left, as he finds out on the day that his class is unexpectedly full of kids who, as he is informed, have no interest in drama but no other classes available to them. To deal with this “rough” bunch, he watches Dangerous Minds.) In order to save drama — and on the advice of the 14-year-old-ish theater critic — Dana decides to mount his own original production, Hamlet 2, a story that has Hamlet going back in a time machine to save all the characters who died in the original Hamlet and also meeting up with Jesus and, depending on the draft, Albert Einstein and Hillary Clinton. The students, a mixture of stunned and amused at his atrocious but captivating work, slowly get on board with the project.

Hamlet 2 features a grab bag of standout bit parts. There’s Catherine Keener as Dana’s wife, who is desperate to have a baby and considering going back to work as a pot dealer to make ends meet. There’s David Arquette in quite possibly his best role, as a barely verbal boarder at Dana and his wife’s house. Just watching the expression on his face during conversations (where he barely ever utters a word) is hilarious. There’s Elisabeth Shue, who plays Elisabeth Shue, an actress embittered by the business and now embarking on a career as a nurse. There’s Joseph Julian Soria as Octavio, one of the students who becomes something of a muse for Dana’s insane work of art.

Hamlet 2 has a jokey, pratfally quality even when nobody’s mumbling humorous asides or falling over chairs. There’s something a bit too broad but without an edge of absurdity to snap it back into sharp focus. Individual scenes from the movie are hilarious; the whole journey is less so. But even if it doesn’t always coalesce, the movie’s overall quirky sweetness and Coogan’s perfect mix of daffiness and realism work to keep it solidly on the path of funny. B

Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content. Directed by Andrew Fleming and written by Fleming and Pam Brady, Hamlet 2 is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Focus Features.