"Hamlet 2" made headlines at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival after it was bought by Focus Features for a whopping $10-million, and it's easy to see why the studio was so eager to snatch it up. This is an uproariously crowd-pleasing satire, one that embraces its R-rated subversiveness without ever feeling dirty or mean-spirited. More than that, though, the film has a natural, unpushy sweetness, and an ensemble of ready and willing actors who are all made to look their best thanks to sterling material and their own expert comic timing. In terms of ingenuity, energy and the amount of laughs riled up, "Hamlet 2" beats the pants off of this summer's bevy of bigger-budgeted comedies (i.e. "Pineapple Express
," "Tropic Thunder
," "Step Brothers
Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) was once an aspiring actor with a list of commercials and made-for-television movies to his name. When the well dried upDana confesses he wasn't very goodhe sought refuge as a high school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona, also known as "the place where dreams go to die." For several seasons, Dana's acting troupe has consisted of two dedicated students, the excitable Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and the "anxious around ethnics" Epiphany Sellars (Phoebe Strole), and his barely-attended, poorly-received show lineup has included stage adaptations of "Erin Brockovich" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."
When Dana's makeshift rehearsal area in the school cafeteria is overrun by a slacker element, he makes it his mission to inspire his new students and get them interested in acting. With the drama budget threatening to be cut, Dana decides a drastic change is needed and pens an original musical sequel to the Bard's sacred "Hamlet." Word soon gets out that the script features sexual material and incorporates Jesus Christ into the mix of characters, sparking an outrage from parents and the school board that leaves Dana and his cast wondering if the show will be able to go on.
"Hamlet 2" is an infectious entertainment with a vast array of humorsome broad, some subtle, some deliciously "inside"that hits far more than it misses. Writer-director Andrew Fleming (2007's "Nancy Drew
") and co-writer Pam Brady (1999's "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
") go all out in parodying the high school drama club milieu, overeager teachers whose importance is weighted by their own delusions, and a Hollywood hierarchy that will spit actors out just as fast as it builds them up. Meanwhile, a succinct comment is made about censorship in its most unruly forms, and the way that a person's desire for self-expression can be stamped out the moment narrow-minded authority figures get in the way of one's creativity.
Amidst it all are characters who are winning originals, led by the ludicrously-named and difficult-to-pronounce Dana Marschz. Dana is self-absorbed to a point, doing whatever it takes to win over the school's tough, wisdom-ready 13-year-old newspaper critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe), but he is never nasty or unashamed by the dreams he strives for. His bonding with his students, intercut with his faltering marriage to the joyously acid-tongued Brie (Catherine Keener) and his newfound friendship with actress-turned-nurse Elisabeth Shue (gamely playing a fictional version of herself), bares an opening to Dana's soul that helps the viewer to understand and empathize with him. He might be playing with one card short of a full deck, but that only makes him all the more lovable. Steve Coogan (2006's "Marie Antoinette
") is equally tender and brilliantly quirky as Dana Marschz, taking what would seem to be unlikely inspiration from Martin Short in 2001's teen romp "Get Over It
The supporting cast surrounding Steve Coogan couldn't be better (with, perhaps, one exception). Film newcomers Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole (both coming off of the Tony-winning Broadway musical "Spring Awakening") are terrific as long-standing drama members Rand and Epiphany, unaffected yet confident. Catherine Keener (2007's "Into the Wild
") gets optimum mileage out of her every acerbic line as Dana's self-deprecating wife Brie. Brie could have been written as a caricature with few redeeming qualities, but even when she's spitting out a sharp barb it is clear there is a certain affection she has for her husband. Amy Poehler (2008's "Baby Mama
") shows up late in the proceedings and steals her scenes as ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein ("I married a Jew, in case you were wondering about my last name"), who is sent out to make sure the play goes off without a hitch.
Portraying herself with good humor to spare, Elisabeth Shue (2007's "Gracie
") is a standout, surprising in how genuinely funny she is and how willingly she goes about playing with her own image. When Shue, now working as a nurse in Tucson, goes to the high school to speak to Dana's students, she confesses that her greatest lament about retiring from acting is that she no longer gets to make out with her co-stars. "At the hospital, you're not allowed to kiss any of the patients," she matter-of-factly tells the teens. The only weak link among the actors is David Arquette (2002's "Eight Legged Freaks
"), whose role as Gary, a boarder Dana and Brie take in to make some extra cash, feels half-formed and unnecessary. Arquette mostly sits in silence for his scenes, and a payoff never comes.
The show-stopping finale of "Hamlet 2," wherein the centerpiece performance takes placemusical numbers include "Raped in the Face," "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus!" and a rendition of Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by the Tucson Gay Men's Choiris the ideal and hugely successful climax to a motion picture that never wears out its welcome. Director Andrew Fleming has concocted that rare feature comedy that actually has something to say, and says it without slowing down the pace or falling into the trap of treacly self-seriousness. One could harp about tiny detailsthe student body of the high school do not, apparently, have any other classes besides Dana'sbut why bother? "Hamlet 2" is the freshest and most consistently laugh-out-loud comedy of the year. Unlike the recent, superficially similar "Tropic Thunder
," it sends you out of the theater with a big smile rather than an ill-at-ease shudder.