Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hamlet 2

There is a moment in Hamlet 2 (2008) in which Brie Marschz (Catherine Keener) says to her husband Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) something along the lines of, "Every so often there is an idea that is so bad it almost becomes good again." If it was not a self-referential line it certainly should have been.

Hamlet 2 follows the story of Dana, a failed actor turned failed drama teacher as his life undergoes a profound change. Driven by an adversarial relationship with his father which seemingly predestined him to failure, he tries to recapture his fleeting glory from life in commercials by producing plays that are copies of popular movies. To show the depths to which he has descended they show a few minutes of his adapted play Erin Brockovich in which his 2 (two) high school drama students try to convincingly play people old enough for her to have multiple marriages and kids. The visual is so ludicrous it threatens to leave the audience in stitches. Fortunately, the deliberately cheesy and horrific acting kept us in our seats. Meanwhile, the tiny audience gives only light applause.

Here they review the caustic review of their play.

Nor is Dana's home life any better. He makes no real money and Brie doesn't either since she stopped dealing drugs. As a result, they have taken in a border named Greg (David Arquette) who is the only one with a paying job or car. Dana roller-skates to class.

Due to budget cuts, the new school year brings a surprise. Instead of merely 2 students, now Dana faces 28, most of them Latino, none of them interested in drama. Soon Dana is told that drama is being cut effective at the end of the semester. Desperate to cling to some vestige of being in show business, he decides to write a play to raise sufficient funds to keep the department alive. He settles on a sequel to Hamlet. Sort of...

The students slowly come together, the project takes on a life of its own, and soon becomes larger than life and incredibly, over the top profane. Rand Posin (Skyler Astin), his long-time stalwart student becomes disgruntled as his role is shrunk and Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) becomes the unquestioned star. He turns the script in to the principal. Meanwhile, Dana's life is falling apart as his wife leaves him for Greg, he is tossed out of school, and protests threaten to completely shut down production.

In the climax the play is put on in an abandoned warehouse over the protests of the school, other portions of the community, and even the parents of some of the actors. It's controversial nature causes it to become a hit and he ends up with the girl he wants, Elisabeth Shue (Elisabeth Shue...her role is one of the in-jokes in the movie), and a triumphant cast.

This movie is marketed as a comedy and on that score it does deliver. There are plenty of laughs...but some of them are perhaps laughs of embarrassment at the over the top crudity, profanity, and so forth. A pretty good example would be the song, "Rape my Face" which is performed primarily by (supposedly) high school students and discussing rape quite extensively with classy lyrics such as "To talk about rape is never nice, don't use it on a date to break the ice" or something similar. I don't recall the lyrics exactly but the meaning was clear.

And in what is destined to be the most talked about, most controversial section they do the song Sexy Jesus in which they do everything Jesus Christ Superstar was afraid to do one suspects. By the way...seldom have I seen anyone better channel Weird Al Yankovic as Coogan does when playing "sexy Jesus". I did quite a few double-takes, thinking I had seen this before in Weird Al's It's All About the Pentiums video.

You see, though it might be marketed as a comedy and played for laughs, this movie is very much a message he says about his play, it is agit-prop. And it is definitely meant to be.

They go out of their way to offend as many people as possible and they do it deliberately, almost breaking the fourth wall to make sure you understand that offensiveness is the point. Clueless, aggressive ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) makes this clear with line after line that is something like, "I married a Jew. That explains the last name.", "Go ahead, hit me, I married a Jew, I have nothing to lose" and so forth.

It is a commentary on lack of funding for the arts...and on how whether the arts are any good is irrelevant. When apparently 10 year old theatre critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe) is approached for ideas to save the drama program he laments the impending death of theatre and then adds, "But you didn't make anything worth saving." Later, Cricket is walking to her car after telling Dana she will defend his play on free speech grounds. He says, "I think the play might be pretty good." to which she replies, "irrelevant."

I interpreted it as a critique of certain elements of the art world...painting, theatre, movies, music...which produce absolute swill and when people object claim, "We are making art". Just because something is profane or is not understandable does not mean it is good.

Of course, the movie also touched on funding crises which threaten programs such as band, theatre, etc. while leaving athletics untouched. And on pay for teachers. And on race matters. And religious objections to blasphemy. And on...well, there were so many things that even some I meant to remember slipped through the cracks of memory.

Examples of how things were approached are not hard to find. When Dana says his Dad won't let him be in the play, Dana insists on "going to the hood" to tell his Dad what it is. So he charges in only to find Octavio is not a gang-banging violent hoodlum trying to stay in school...he is a 3.9 student already accepted at brown who lives in the rich part of town with his highly successful parents.

In the end, this movie tries to do too much and where they have something to say but don't always know how to say it they rely on driving the "everyone has problems with their Dad" theme through the ground and then centering on time-traveling Jesus as a modern celebrity.

There are moments of brilliance and moments of triteness. You are pretty likely to come away with strong feelings for or against this film when you are done. And probably a lot of quotes.

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