Not to Be
In its final 10 minutes, Hamlet 2 is little more than chaos, noise, and nonsense, and those are 10 perfectly enjoyable minutes. It's hard to knock any sequence that climaxes with a musical number titled "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," done up nice and Grease-y. Problem is, the 80 or so minutes that precede them are also little more than chaos, noise, and nonsense, and in the worst possible way — more abrasively rickety than amusingly ramshackle. In short, most of Hamlet 2 is a humorless mess masquerading as mean-spirited satire — just another one of those "independent films" that's nothing more than a poorly made Hollywood movie, messy and self-satisfied and rarely as funny as it thinks it is.
The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it sold for $10 million to Focus Features — which makes it but one more overpriced snow bunny sure to melt the moment it hits the multiplex. (And, yes, Happy, Texas, we're still looking in your general direction.) Hamlet 2 is the quintessential Sundancer: disdainful of middle-class Middle America, willfully "edgy," and made by a Hollywood director looking to make his big comeback with, dig, integrity this time around. In this case, it's Andrew Fleming, whose underrated Dick reimagined All the President's Men with Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward, but whose later films (among them the woeful In-Laws remake) were released straight to Dollar Generals.
Perhaps art imitates life? Hamlet 2 is about making capital-A art for folks who just don't get it — in this instance, a Tucson, Arizona high school, where Steve Coogan's Dana Marschz is a drama instructor trying to stage a Hamlet sequel involving a time machine, Jesus Christ, Snoopy, handjobs, Hillary Clinton, a gay men's chorus, elaborate dance numbers, and a song containing the lyric "raped in the face." The movie comes with its own self-defense mechanism: If you don't think it's funny, you just don't get it, man.
Repeatedly, Hamlet 2 tells you exactly what it is: a parody of Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, and all the other "inspirational teacher movies" Dana references while trying to tame an influx of unruly Latino students killing time in his drama class following the evacuation of asbestos-filled classrooms. And, yes, there's some Rushmore in there as well: Dana stages overwrought redos of Hollywood blockbusters, à la the Max Fischer Players. And, sure, Fleming also borrows liberally from Waiting for Guffman, because Dana is a veteran of juicer infomercials and herpes ads hoping to write his big ticket out of Tucson, a place "where dreams go to die." But to compare it further to Wes Anderson's and Chris Guest's respective masterpieces would give the decidedly wrong impression; Hamlet 2 is their exact opposite.
A sloppy hodgepodge of performances, intentions, and execution, the film is too ham-fisted to enlighten and too clumsy to offend. It's not hard to see what it aspires to be: a live-action South Park episode eviscerating the schmucks and suckers who get in its way, be they left, right, or just wrong. (The fact it was co-written by Pam Brady, a South Park veteran who also had a hand in Team America: World Police, tips its hand just a little.) But its shocks serve no purpose other than to shock, to elicit the cheap gasp — which diminishes considerably around the fourth time you hear someone say "Raped in the face" or see Coogan traipsing about without underwear, the surest sign of desperation.
Coogan appears to be doing Steve Carell doing Michael Scott, his character from The Office: the dumb, delusional American dolt who thinks he's funnier than he is, smarter than he is, and more important than he'll ever be. He's thoroughly unlikable, an irritant with daddy issues in need of therapy who thinks himself a revolutionary writer of "sociopolitical agit-prop theater." But if Dana is unlikable, the rest of the characters are equally loathsome, including Catherine Keener's put-upon ex-pot-dealing wife who's constantly drunk just so she can cope with being married to such a loser; David Arquette, as the moronic border helping with rent; Amy Poehler, as ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein, who attributes her last name to "being married to a Jew" and says things such as "The so-called Supreme Court can suck my balls"; and Elisabeth Shue as a bright-eyed but nonetheless burned-out version of herself, now slumming it in a Tucson sperm bank to avoid "all the horrible people" in Hollywood, haw haw. To that you can add a collection of students who include the religious and racist white girl named Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), the bi-curious Rand (Skylar Astin), and a host of Hispanic kids whose gruff exteriors mask their true origins as the enlightened offspring of authors and artists.
Alas, none of this matters. You can hear the filmmakers now, their defense already uttered during the movie by the school paper's prepubescent critic, who holds nothing but contempt for Dana and his doings. Says the boy genius: "Sometimes an idea can be so bad it turns good again." Sure, sometimes. Just not this time.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.