Dir: Andrew Fleming. US. 2008. 92mins.
Britain's Steve Coogan finally finds a US vehicle which effectively showcases his comedic talents in Hamlet 2, a more-hit-than-miss gagfest in which he plays a talentless high school drama teacher called Dana Marszh. Often wildly funny, this puerile romp was a welcome oasis of frivolity in an otherwise lugubrious Sundance film festival where it was sold within hours of its world premiere for $10m to Focus Features.
The film's political incorrectness is perfectly pitched for older teens and twentysomethings around the world, and it could achieve solid box office and longterm cult status on DVD. While its appeal is more mainstream than Waiting For Guffman, Hamlet 2's comedy is more irreverent and adult-skewed than that of other putting-on-a-show comedies such as Wayne 's World 2 or School Of Rock. Its theatrical performance will more likely echo Saturday Night Live spinoffs like A Night At The Roxbury or Superstar.
Long revered in the UK for his buffoonish characters Alan Partridge and Tom Saxondale, Coogan could be propelled into the major league by Hamlet 2, and Marszh is memorable enough a creation to warrant a sequel.
The film was directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming, whose credits include the recent remake of The In-Laws but more memorably the Watergate comedy Dick in 1999.
Set in Tucson, Arizona, a desert city which is mercilessly lampooned throughout, Hamlet 2 is the name of the latest play written by Marszh for his drama class at West Mesa High School. A failed actor himself, he has traditionally staged Hollywood movies at the school (we see a sequence from his staging of Erin Brockovich), always casting his sole students - two preppy white kids called Rand Posin (Astin) and Epiphany Sellars (Strole).
He is married to the sharp-tongued Brie (Keener) and the two are so impoverished by Dana's lack of success in life that they have to take in a lodger, the grunting fitness instructor Gary (Arquette).
Inspired by the ninth grade critic who regularly savages his work in the school newspaper, Dana decides to write an original piece for the new semester production and comes up with Hamlet 2, a musical sequel in which Hamlet goes back in time and teams up with Jesus Christ to save his family from the death that visits them in Hamlet 1.
His class is boosted by an influx of apathetic Latino students at which he, Rand and Epiphany direct various unintentionally racist comments. Chief among the new students is the brooding Octavio (Soria) who becomes the star of Hamlet 2, much to Rand 's chagrin.
Midway through rehearsals, Dana is informed that his drama class is being axed and the principal tries to prevent production of the play due to its risque content. Buoyed by the renewed enthusiasm of his students, however, he goes to extreme lengths to ensure that the show goes on.
Of course the lame story is not the point here, but the myriad comic moments and situations. Amy Poehler is hilarious as the tough-as-nails ACLU lawyer who arrives in town to fight the teachers and parents who want to shut the production down, Keener has some great one-liners as the increasingly despairing Brie Marszh and best of all is Elisabeth Shue, playing Elisabeth Shue, the Hollywood actress who has retired from the cutthroat movie business to start a new career as a nurse in Tucson.
Although a good percentage of the jokes fall flat, Coogan's endearingly inept Dana Marszh keeps the film going through its dry patches and the final performance itself - complete with musical numbers ('Rock Me Sexy Jesus') and backup singing by The Tucson Gay Men's Chorus - ends it in style.
Production companies /backers
L+E Pictures (US)
Focus Features/Focus Features International
Joseph Julian Soria