LOS ANGELES - The Associated Press
The play's the thing in "Hamlet" and it is in "Hamlet 2," as well. It's just about the only thing that makes this intentionally cringe-inducing theatrical parody worth watching.
Sure, Steve Coogan has his hilarious moments as a delusional drama coach struggling to save the arts program at a Tucson, Arizona, high school, but that's all there is in the movie: moments. By now we know the British comic is capable of grabbing hold of a character and never letting go (see: Alan Partridge), so his commitment to playing the arrogant-but-pathetic former actor Dana Marschz is without question.
But the material director Andrew Fleming (�Dick") and co-writer Pam Brady (�Team America: World Police") give him is hit-and-miss, at best. A lot of it was probably funnier in the conceptual stage than in the actual execution. The last name of Coogan's character, for example, is impossible to pronounce and gets botched repeatedly, one of several gags that aren't particularly funny the first time around.
Before teaching high school drama, though, Dana had a fledgling acting career, the highlights of which we see at the film's promising start: a tortured infomercial for the Jack LaLanne juicer; a sunny ad for a herpes medicine. Now, he likes directing his young actors in stage versions of his favorite movies, such as "Dangerous Minds," "Dead Poets Society" and "Mr. Holland's Opus." (Surely, you can detect a theme here.) And his dream is to put on a musical of "The Lake House," that forgettable Keanu Reeves-Sandra Bullock romance from a few years back.
These are funny ideas. (To see them all together in one tidy place, go online and check out the red-band trailer, which is more consistently amusing than the movie itself.) In between, these concepts, though, is a great morass of redundant, one-note slog, which we must endure while we wait for Dana's wild, wonderfully campy production, "Hamlet 2." It's a musical he hopes will revive not just the school's drama program but his life, both professionally and personally.
To call him a has-been would be charitable; he's more like a never-was. This would, in theory, engender some sympathy for him, but Dana tends to be too obnoxiously self-possessed to deserve it - unlike Christopher Guest's sweetly vulnerable Corky St. Clair in the great "Waiting for Guffman," who shares similar aspirations of greatness.
Dana's wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), doesn't even bother to hide her disdain and is all too happy to suck back giant margaritas in front of him, even though he's a recovering alcoholic. And the high school newspaper's scrawny drama critic has it in for him, though you've got to hand it to the kid -- his observations are insightful.
"Hamlet 2" will, ostensibly, change all that. If Dana can get it to the stage, that is. Among the cast are his two overeager pets, the closeted Rand and the bigoted Epiphany (Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole, both alumni of Broadway's "Spring Awakening"). But the rest are misfits - most of them Hispanic - who were thrown into Dana's class when they had nowhere else to go. He casts the one who looks the most dangerous and defiant, Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), as Hamlet. (Turns out, he's pretty good.) But the relationship he and the others develop with Dana turns "Hamlet 2" into the very kind of feel-good high school drama the movie ridiculed at the start.
When the administration and city officials work themselves into a frenzy over the play's unconventional and irreverent content, in steps ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) to fight for free speech. But attempts at making a statement about the power of art feel clunky compared to the joyful weirdness of the play itself.
Ah yes, the play. We won't give away too much, since it is, as we mentioned, the best part of the whole movie. Suffice it to say, "Hamlet 2" features a time machine to circumvent the pesky fact that everyone dies in "Hamlet," the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus and Dana himself -- in a wife-beater tank top, jeans, long hair and a beard -- dancing to a jaunty, 1950s-style ditty titled "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."
If you feel inclined to get worked up into your own tizzy about that, don't bother. The movie isn't worth it.