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The Hamlet 2 (movie) Review

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Hamlet 2 is a strange film. It’s not for everyone and probably will not play well to older and/or more conservative audience. The conservative ones it sends up. The older ones won’t get parts of the humor.

Figure the co-writers on this are Pam Brady whose writing credits include South Park and Team America, and Andrew Fleming whose very diverse resume includes writer/director skits on The Craft, Dick (the Richard Nixon comedy) and, of all things, Nancy Drew. Figure you’re going have something a little odd mixing those two, right? Then throw in Steve Coogan. Who? He’s been doing TV comedy in the UK pretty darn steady since 1994, but isn’t a major player in the U.S. yet. His signature Alan Partridge character started on BBC radio in 1991 and appeared fairly regularly as late as 2005. 14 years of mileage would put that character in rarified air with Fraiser Crane and Archie Bunker, in terms of long-lived US characters of (somewhat) recent years.

This is a very dark comedy. Laughter is directed at the misfortune of others, a bit slapstick, but much of it at emotional pain. There’s also a fair amount of shock humor as they see how far they can push the envelope. There’s a musical number about “Sexy Jesus.” It’s very, very funny if you can get your head around it. There’s also a musical number about being “raped in the face.” It’s actually a plot point. Very funny, but even if you get the joke, you’re still going to squirm while you laugh. If either of those concepts make you cringe, stay away from this film.

The actual plot of the film is about a failed actor (Coogan) who’s been reduced to teaching drama at a high school in Tucson. He’s not good at it (in fact, he’s a completely self-absorbed, oblivious boob) and keeps adapting Hollywood films for stage, only to be savaged by the school drama critic, who appears to be about 10 years old. The sports-crazy school decides to cut drama and Coogan is left with one final production to try and change everyone’s mind.

Partially a satire of the “inspire the students” genre of Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets’ Society (both of which are referenced in the film), partially a satire of Hollywood eating its own, and in a small part a satire of gays in acting, this makes for a really strange blend.

This isn’t the most even film in the world, and the biggest problem is that Coogan tends to blow people off the screen if he’s not with one of the big-gun co-stars. Put him next to Catherine Keener (his wife who wants children NOW) and it’s great. Put him next to Amy Poehler as the ACLU lawyer who shows up when everything hits the fan, it goes absurd in two great directions. Put him next to Elizabeth Shue (playing herself having quit Hollywood and become a nurse) and Coogan actually gets a tiny bit grounded and it comes off a bit sweet. Of the younger actors, the only one who completely holds his own is the kid (wish I had his name handy) playing the school drama critic, whose Jack Webb, “just the facts, ma’am” critiques really do the trick. Without the veterans to play off of, Coogan’s antics occasionally seem cartoonish in the context.

When your targets for humor include racism, molestation, the Bible, homosexuality, drugs, alcoholism, infertility and jocks, you know the film isn’t going to be without controversy. I also didn’t feel it was particularly mean-spirited, as much as it laughs at the emotional tragedies of its lead. Really its theme is about working out one’s problems.

Indeed, Hamlet 2 even had some subtleties. When the drama program is cut, the camera pulls back to reveal Coogan’s been given the news in front of a giant athletic trophy case. In the big city theater I saw this in, most of the audience seemed to be watching Coogan’s reaction and not taking in the reality of what’s common for high schools in smaller areas than Tuscon. I’m not saying that there were many subtleties, or that it’s a strength of the film, but there’s something there if you look.

Coogan is really the centerpiece of the film, and in a strange way his character reminded me of Michael Crawford’s character in Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em (for the uninitiated, long before Michael Crawford was a sex symbol in Phantom of the Opera, he was the ultimate well-intentioned dimwit who failed at everything he tried and did so while performing fantastic slapstick stunts). I don’t think this was an intentional similarity, but rather a combination of the script and Coogan bringing a British sensibility to the film… and that his character is frequently floundering around on roller skates, which was a particularly memorable sequence of Some Mothers. This wasn’t as aggressively slapstick, excepting perhaps, the actual production of Hamlet 2, and certainly had a little more going on by way of story and emotional themes, but if you liked Some Mothers and have a twisted bent, this might be up your alley.  In some ways, this is Frank Spencer (ableit Frank with childhood issues) trying to make a go of acting.

South Park fans should love it. Family Guy fans should love it. If your tastes run more towards harmless fun, stay far away. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed Team America, but thought Napoleon Dynamite needed some real punchlines, I loved about 45 minutes of the 95 or so it runs and was ambivalent on the rest. This is a film where it will really depend on your personal tastes. Matinee/rental if you’re mixed. If you live in Tucson and like the city, do not see Hamlet 2. I haven’t seen a city dumped on this bad since they tried to finance an escape from New York in Quick Change.

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