Few writers can resist a Shakespeare gag, so please allow me to indulge: Hamlet 2 poses the question whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of clichéd comedy, or take arms against a sea of dick jokes and end them with a muddled farce. There's no good answer on screen, which is a shame because Hamlet 2 does have worthy intentions, ambition and, occasionally, very funny setups.
Steve Coogan, a prototypically British comedy giant — who's still trying to break out of the stateside supporting-part ghetto — takes lead role as an enthusiastic, daft and questionably swishy Tucson, Ariz., high school drama coach, desperate to reverse his flagging fortunes by putting on an original hit show. The premise worked far better when it starred Christopher Guest and was called Waiting for Guffman, as did bits like mounting stage versions of Hollywood blockbusters — here it's Erin Brockovich, in Guffman it was Backdraft. Actually Rushmore used the same shtick too, and this movie is stacked with plenty of other pieces borrowed or warmed over, all presented as if groundbreaking and provocative.
Coogan plays a rather ambiguously named Dana, who's continually trying to correct people on his unpronounceable last name, a routine that never gets funnier no matter how many times it's repeated. And the actor fully commits here — at times too hard — and his willfully weird line readings and aggressive kookiness keep the viewer at arm's length, where, perhaps, Steve Carrell would've been more sympathetic.
The perpetual pratfalls are equally awkward (see Coogan rollerblading to work), and an off-putting subplot about Dana's worthless, cheating, stoner wife (in a rare flopping role for the great Catherine Keener) goes nowhere. There's also a curiously meta inside bit about Elizabeth Shue playing herself as a Hollywood refugee who Dana fawns over, which only reminds us how far off the radar Shue has fallen in real life.
Such distractions and attempts at laughs fail to prepare us for the big finish, the play itself, a fairly solid knockoff of today's overblown Broadway spectaculars. The show-within-the-show involves the Bard's great Dane traveling back in time to erase that "bummer ending" with the help of a tank-top-wearing hunky Jesus, some pyrotechnics, wire work and a laser sword battle. The songs, including the heretical "Rock me, Sexy Jesus" are catchy spoofs of crap like Grease, and they manage to land the satirical strikes that the rest of the film had been hurling so desperately.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].