Hamlet 2 (2008) / Comedy-Musical
MPAA Rated: R for language, including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content
Running time: 92 min.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, Marshall Bell, Joseph Julian Soria, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Melonie Diaz, Arnie Pantoja, Michael Esparza, Natalie Amenula
Director: Andrew Fleming
Screenplay: Pam Brady, Andrew Fleming
Review published September 5, 2008
Something is rotten in the state of Arizona.
Hamlet 2 is co-written by Pam Brady, whose previous work has included the envelope-pushing Stone/Parker comedies, South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut and Team America: World Police. If you've seen those, or the "South Park" television show, you quickly learn the formula: exploit political correctness for comedy by constantly saying things one shouldn't say. Mock religion, mock minorities, mock sexuality, mock vaunted institutions, and use vulgarity and crassness when possible to goad audiences into laughter. It's not a form that tries to offend necessarily; it exists merely to touch sore spots in the name of fun. It's like your friend that jokingly remarks about one of your flaws, knowing that you know they like you anyway. We'd probably be insulted if we didn't know they actually were "just kidding".
From my perspective, the problem with this brand of humor as employed here is that it isn't much more than that. It's impertinence without substance, a poor man's form of satire whereby brazen disrespectfulness is mistakenly confused with artistic boldness. Easy potshots are taken, but because no one is immune to being ridiculed, no one group is ever singled out -- it is an equal opportunity offender. Well made satires usually have a target, and they strike them indirectly with bite, provoking some thought or effort to change the status quo. A film like Hamlet 2 isn't out to change anything; it just wants to evoke laughter. It targets its subjects head on, and whether you laugh along with it or walk out offended, it makes little distinction in the results. It's evocative rather than provocative, sticking its tongue out at whatever it can, but so indiscriminate in its jests that it is more buffoonery than irony.
Hamlet 2 is set in Tucson, Arizona, a place that writers Fleming (Nancy Drew, Dick) and Brady also ridicule as basically a place no one should ever want to live. We follow the exploits of Dana Marschz (Coogan, Night at the Museum), a high school drama teacher and struggling playwright, whose works often include stage productions of popular movies such as Erin Brockovich. Cutbacks in the school system have resulted in his class being one of the only electives for students to take, and now Dana's class is filled with students who don't want to be there, i.e. the "gangsta element", (i.e. Latinos).
However, Marschz's head is likely to be next on the chopping black when new cuts come in, especially if he continues to produce plays no one wants to see. He's going to have to come up with something dynamite to get people in the seats, and his revelation, goaded by a freshman theater critic for the school paper to create an original work, is to produce a sequel to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (a time machine is involved so that the characters won't die). Alas, the parents and school administrators don't agree with his tactics, especially in his perceived disrespect for religion and morality, and the whole thing threatens to implode before it ever has the chance of seeing the light of day.
One can see the parallels between Marschz's play and the style of humor remarked upon in the opening paragraphs of this review. Both are productions that are unpopular with the moral majority. The difference is that Marschz's play appears to be a result of his strained relationship with his father (a particularly tacky remark about being molested provides one of the film's more cringe-worthy moments), and it's more a cry for help than an attempt to entertain. This is the kind of movie where we have to suspend disbelief that people would actually find such a horrid play entertaining, and while I'm willing to play along for the sake of the comedy, I'm afraid I can't suspend my disbelief that what I'm seeing passes for a quality film.
Fleming and Brady don't exactly provide enough genuinely witty moments to laugh at, and the burden is on Coogan to try to use his charm and knack for physical humor to elevate the material into something humorous. That he actually does manage to get some laughs where other actors might not shows his talent as a comedian. His ability to use slapstick while keeping a straight face is impressive, engaging in pratfalls without them coming across as desperate attempts to create laughs when none can be found. Yet, not even Coogan's talent can save such a scattershot approach, as Hamlet 2 isn't close to being fine-tuned enough to keep focused on just what's going on. The plot only exists in order to spin off tangential scenes of amusement, feeling like a collection of skits featuring the same characters in different situations.
It's probably for the best to avoid plot when you see how it is employed. There is no humor value to be found in seeing Marschz running for his life from a homicidal school principal who doesn't want the play to go forward. Certainly, Marschz could have been fired for any number of reasons, and with good cause, but we remember that this is a knowingly stupid movie, so we go with the flow in the hope that there will be a payoff for all of the nonsense.
The supporting adult players are barely utilized for funny moments. David Arquette (The Darwin Awards, Riding the Bullet) gets a role that practically anyone could play as the live-in companion who keeps Dana's wife, played by Catherine Keener (Friends with Money, Capote), busy as her husband pursues his writing and directing. His character's inclusion serves merely one purpose and then is never seen again. Amy Poehler (Mr. Woodcock, Blades of Glory) gets a few scenes as a potty-mouthed ACLU watchdog who comes to Marschz's rescue. Removing her propensity for mindless vulgarity, there's nothing funny at all about her character, Elisabeth Shue (First Born, Gracie) also gets a role, playing herself, now working as a nurse now that she's given up on her movie career. That angle, like so many in the movie, seems much funnier in concept than in execution, as her scenes seem like ad-libbed afterthoughts more so than something that would ever have been contained in the original script.
The songs in Marschz's play include such ditties as "Raped in the Face" and "Rock Me Sexy Jesus", which are supposed to be so un-PC, they're funny. Laughs are tepid at best, and once the initial guffaw at the title is gained, the rest of the song seems anticlimactic to listen to. That none of the songs have much to do with "Hamlet" only shows how little mileage there is in the sequel concept, and the kitchen sink is thrown at us in an effort to squeeze out laughter even if it breaks the integrity of the story's premise.
Hamlet 2 will most likely find an audience with those viewers who mistake raunch for art, as if pushing the boundaries of taste equates to pushing the boundaries of creativity. When examined with a critical eye, the formula is actually fairly easy to follow, as each scene is set up to ridicule its characters for everything that they are. Perhaps there is a cathartic pleasure for audiences to see someone other than themselves insulted without boundaries. Alas, the more the characters get insulted, the more insulted I feel that so much energy is wasted in knocking down anything that gets built up in the script, wallowing in its own idiocy for fear that someone might make the mistake of enjoying the film on any level other than its sass.
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
©2008 Vince Leo