Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Premise: A failed actor (Steve Coogan) takes a job as a high school drama teacher and puts on a production of his own play, an absurd sequel to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What Works: As the premise suggests, Hamlet 2 is an off-beat comedy. The film was directed by Andrew Fleming, who had previously helmed the Nixon comedy Dick and the supernatural cult film The Craft and the picture was co-written by Pam Brady, who has writing credits on South Park and Team America: World Police. Hamlet 2 shares many of the best elements of Fleming and Brady’s other work, reflecting their absurdist sensibilities but also their satirical edge. This is a movie about art and when Hollywood takes on issues like freedom of speech or the value of high school arts programs, there is a tendency to play it straight, which sometimes results in a good piece of entertainment like Music of the Heart but quite often ends up as rubbish like Dangerous Minds and Glee. The problem with a lot of these films and television shows is that they enshrine the production of art as something nearing a holy sacrament and then merge that attitude with the myth of high school as the defining period of a person’s life. Hamlet 2 is a farce that punches holes in those platitudes. The filmmakers recognize a contradictory and unflattering truth about art: that the creation or presentation of art can be deeply meaningful for the performer and yet the work itself can be terrible. And that makes this film, in at least a perfunctory way, a smart screed about the narcissism of artists and the sometimes absurd ways we come to value art. That narcissism and absurdity come through most clearly in the film through the performance of Steve Coogan as the drama instructor and playwright. Coogan is a character actor who has often been relegated to supporting roles in which he usually plays emasculated white collar characters. His role in Hamlet 2 is consistent with that but Coogan manages to carry the film; he is unrepentantly self-obsessed but he is also very funny and watchable. The performance is aided by the script which makes him just enough of an underdog to put the audience on his side. Although the filmmakers of Hamlet 2 make a joke of the teenage dramatists and their teacher, the film is not mean spirited and it also takes shots at those threatening their project. When the racier elements of the play cause a political outcry from the conservative members of the community, a civil liberties attorney played by Amy Pohler shows up and that broadens the perspective of this film so that it isn’t just about the teacher and his students but also about the community. By doing that, Hamlet 2 is able to add another dimension onto its story that makes everyone look absurd in the way that the best satires do.
What Doesn’t: Hamlet 2 is an uneven film. The humor is somewhat off-putting, although that is part of the design of the film. As it comes from one of the writers of South Park and Team America, the film uses a fair amount of gross or incendiary ideas and gags, such as the tune “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” which is one of the main tunes of the high school production. The crude humor is often hit or miss although the satirical gags are much more consistent and constitute the main thrust of the picture. Hamlet 2 also uses a lot of high school clichés seen in films like Easy A and Saved! such as the homosexual drama club members, the conservative Christian moralists, and the teacher with a troubled home life. Because this is a satire it is using those clichés purposely but the film doesn’t always get as much mileage out of them as it could.
DVD extras: Deleted scene, featurettes, commentary track.
Bottom Line: Hamlet 2 mostly works and it compares favorably to the films of Christopher Guest. This is a picture that will appeal to viewers with a kitschy or off color taste in comedy and fans of South Park or This is Spinal Tap should find it entertaining.
Episode: #379 (March 11, 2012)