Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Corky St. Clair, the flamboyantly hysterical director at the center of Waiting for Guffman, had settled down with a woman and taught high school drama in Tucson?
Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, gives a pretty good estimation, and while it isn’t the best comedy of the year, it manages to be a perfectly hilarious end-of-summer treat. It’s hard to name all of the targets that come under fire in director Andrew Fleming’s comedy, but High School Musical, Dangerous Minds, school censorship, the ACLU, gays, Latino stereotypes, the city of Tucson and pretentious teachers certainly get their share.
Dana Marschz, who comes across as an intellectual Stuart Smalley from SNL, complete with floppy hair and a super-fragile ego, stages terrible plays based on movies — his latest is Erin Brockovich — at cash-strapped West Mesa High School in Tucson. He lives with his dissatisfied wife (Catherine Keener) and roommate (David Arquette), but his whole world is turned upside-down when the principal threatens to yank funding for drama at the same time as his normally tiny class becomes stuffed with students bumped from other “more important” classes.
His solution is to stage a musical called Hamlet 2, wherein a time machine and Jesus help give Shakespeare’s fatality-laden classic a peppy, happier ending. The school tries to shut it down, and that’s when feisty Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) of the ACLU comes to town itching for a First Amendment fight. Dana also gets an unexpected ally when he meets Elizabeth Shue (as “Elizabeth Shue”), who has left the Hollywood rat race and now works as a nurse.
Hamlet 2 is overly broad much of the time, but it hits the mark most of the time. “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” the big number from the show, sounds a lot like “Little Shop of Horrors”, but it’s a funny bit of purposely-offensive fluff sure to piss off the religious right. The movie is fast-paced and fun, and Coogan, Keener, and Shue give great performances. The film’s dead-end vision of Tucson was actually filmed in Albuquerque, the setting of High School Musical, but I figure they couldn’t trash Albuquerque and still get all the cushy incentives from the state.
If you enjoy South Park’s raunchiness and Waiting for Guffman’s star-struck love of theater, you’ll enjoy Hamlet 2.
UPDATE: Hamlet 2 is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.