There must be something in the air at Park Cities that causes audiences to go wild for feeble little independent comedies, and induces ordinarily hard-hearted studio executives to pay exorbitant amounts for distribution rights to them. Unfortunately, when the pictures leave the rarefied Utah atmosphere the reaction to them changes radically. What might be called The Sundance Effect was apparent with “Happy, Texas” and “Son of Rambow,” and it’s at work again with “Hamlet 2.” It could be that at a midnight screening in a, shall we say, festive atmosphere, the picture seemed hilarious. On more level ground, however, the goofily anarchic quality it cultivates proves far from it.
The premise is that Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a self-important but inept drama teacher at a Tucson highschool, is informed by the no-nonsense Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) that his program is being shut down at term’s end, despite the fact that he’s unpaid and enrollment in his class has just skyrocketed because all the alternatives have already been cancelled for budgetary reasons. (The combination makes no sense, of course, but there it is.) He hopes to save his position—and the dramatic art—by taking the advice of the pint-sized critic for the school paper who’s always trashed his awful two-person adaptations of movies like “Erin Brokovich” (the cast size limited by the fact that until now he’s only had two students—fussy Ryan and perky Epiphany, played broadly by Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole) and write something original. What he comes up with is a crazy updating of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the melancholy Dane, wherein Hamlet uses a time machine to avert all the depressing deaths that occur in the original. It also features musical numbers, including one in which a hippie Christ will appear in a big production number titled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”
This oddball concoction for some reason proves irresistible to all the new students—mostly Hispanics whom Dana thinks of as gangbangers—whose leader Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) has persuaded Marschz that his name is Haywood Jablowme (a perfect example of the level of verbal humor scripters Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming, the latter also serving as director, provide). Of course, when Principal Rocker hears about what’s going on, he closes school property to the production, leading to a “let’s put on a show” last act in an abandoned warehouse and the appearance of an abrasive ACLU lawyer, Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), who arrives to insure that opposition groups don’t prevent the show from going on.
There’s some funny stuff here—I particularly liked the periodic conversations between Marschz and that acerbic-in-print but tolerant-in-person critic (played by diminutive Shea Pepe, whose mouth looks as though it can barely wrap itself around his amusingly sophisticated observations). But most of “Hamlet 2” is the kind of thing that probably read a lot funnier than it plays. Coogan’s relentlessly manic performance makes Marschz more pitiable than sympathetic, and though Poehler’s brusqueness provides some sharp commentary on agenda-driven attorneys, the subplot featuring Catherine Keener as Dana’s long-suffering wife and David Arquette as the dim-bulb boarder they’ve had to take in comes off poorly, consisting mostly of a series of supposedly comic harangues in which she shrilly berates her husband. (Arquette’s completely wasted in a part he could have phoned in.) Even worse is a cutesy thread about Elisabeth Shue, who’s purportedly chucked acting for a nursing job, which offers less than nothing as its payoff.
But what ultimately does the movie in is the fact that the big finale, showing us excerpts of Marschz’s play, isn’t nearly as hilarious as it’s obviously intended to be. In cases like this the anticipation always exceeds the delivery—even Mel Brooks, except for the “Springtime for Hitler” number, stumbled at this point in “The Producers”—and here “Rock Me” itself doesn’t measure up. And the movie audience’s riotously positive reaction seems like an almost desperate attempt to tell us how to react. (At least the big-time critic didn’t show up to bestow undeserved praise in “Waiting for Guffman,” a movie that got it right.)
In terms of production quality, the picture is pretty threadbare, but that’s not an inappropriate look when it’s trying to portray a forlorn atmosphere of dusty Southwestern.
One can be thankful that at least “Hamlet 2” doesn’t follow the bad old sequel rule about just doing the same thing over again: the very thought of seeing Steve Coogan actually attempting to do something Shakespearean is horrible to contemplate. Unfortunately, its emphasis on the “ham” part of the title will be too much for many viewers’ taste.