Hamlet 2 (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hamlet 2 Poster

Hamlet 2 (a great title) does not represent the first time in recent years that something unconventional has been done to one of the Bard's classics. (Although, to be sure, no one has been as audacious as to develop a musical sequel to a play.) Scotland, PA re-imagined Macbeth as a modern-day comedy. In A Midwinter's Tale, Kenneth Branagh developed a comedy centered on an amateur production of Hamlet. Years later, Branagh elected to adapt Love's Labour's Lost as a musical, using established standards. Aspects of all these productions can be found in Hamlet 2, not to mention swatches of Mel Brooks' The Producers and Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman. Despite the richness of the premise for comic invention, however, Hamlet 2 remains a rather mediocre experience, offering sporadic laughs but never achieving the level of consistent humor necessary to make this memorable.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is a drama teacher at a Tucson high school. Outside of a couple of overeager teacher's pets, his class is filled with kids who would rather be anywhere except in school. Taking his cues from Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, and Dead Poets Society, Dana decides to change the lives of his students. To accomplish this, he casts them in a play of his own devising: Hamlet 2, the musical "sequel" to Shakespeare's masterpiece. For the lead, he chooses the most dangerous of his students, Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), who is also the most talented. However, as word gets out about what he's doing, the principal decides to step in and put an end to the production. Enter Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), an ACLU lawyer who takes up Dana's cause. Meanwhile, at home, the teacher is involved in a little domestic drama: his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), is tired of her inability to conceive and drags Dana to a fertility clinic.

Like the play in The Producers, Hamlet 2 is intended to be woeful. It even has its own version of "Springtime for Hitler": "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." The premise of the play is straightforward: Hamlet gets his hands on a time machine and, accompanied by Jesus, spends some time in the modern world before traveling back to save Ophelia, Gertrude, and Laertes from death. When a literature professor questions why Dana would remove all the tragedy from one of the world's greatest tragedies, he responds that the characters deserve happy endings. In that way, Hamlet 2 is able to comment (none-too-subtly) on Hollywood's distaste for "downer" endings.

The comedy in Hamlet 2 is uneven. Some scenes and performances cull laughter; others fall flat. The story as a whole, with its dull parody of the "teacher saves his students" staple, feels overlong. Steve Coogan brings a restless, manic quality to Dana, but it's as often irritating as it is amusing. (He's highly reminiscent of Eric Idle.) The two best comedic turns belong to Amy Poehler and Catherine Keener, both of whom find the right groove for their characters and have the best lines. The most underused actress is Elisabeth Shue, playing a caricature of herself as a washed-up actress who, disillusioned with the business, has become a nurse. Shue gamely participates in an act of self-deprecation, but hilarious possibilities with this character aren't realized.

The best things about Hamlet 2 are the most offbeat. Those who sense the occasional flavor of South Park are not deceived: director Andrew Fleming's co-writer, Pam Brady, is a South Park alum. The move opens with parodies of TV commercials illustrating Dana's lack of success as an actor. There's a short but funny scene where he interacts with a cat while straining to write Hamlet 2. A montage is set to a rendition of "Maniac" as performed by the Tucson Gay Chorus (they later also sing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight"). Moments like these save Hamlet 2 from becoming a bore but they don't make it worth paying a full admission for. The film was purchased for $10 million out of Sundance by Focus Features and will likely become another instance of something that looked better in the rarefied January atmosphere of Park City than it will look in local multiplexes around the country in the mugginess of late August.

Hamlet 2 (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1