Where do dreams go to die? That’s the question posed at the beginning of HAMLET 2, a comedy about the triumph of enthusiasm over talent. The answer to that question is Tucson, Arizona, at least for Dana Marschz, a spectacularly untalented actor turned equally untalented drama teacher at a high school there. Driven from a career that included a juicer commercial and being a stand-in for Robin Williams on one of the latter’s less successful flicks, Dana has channeled his broken dreams into turning popular films into high school productions, films like ERIN BROCKOVICH and MISSISSIPPI BURNING. It’s as awful as it sounds.
The film that tells the tale of this misguided acolyte of all things thespian, however, is mercilessly funny as it mocks Dana while never quite losing its sympathy for his plight. He’s so needy, so desperate, and so very, very clueless about everything except his own lack of talent. There is in Dana a tattered kind of nobility in the way he accepts his shortcomings and forges ahead anyway. Be it at school, with a class suddenly swollen with disgruntled students forced there due to an asbestos mishap, or on the home front. There Dana is gifted with an acerbic, disaffected yet baby-hungry wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), and Gary (David Arquette), a man with the self-awareness of an amoeba, who is the roommate brought in to help ends meet, but who also brings out the worst in Brie.
Beginning with a narrowly avoided lawsuit when a class demonstration goes awry, moving through the news that the school board is shutting down the drama program, and swinging through a trip to a fertility clinic where he finds Elizabeth Shue, THE Elizabeth Shue, working as a nurse, Dana’s life becomes even more of a shambles. But a heart-to-heart talk with the school’s diminutive drama critic steers Dana onto the right track. He will save the drama program and he will do it with the eponymous play he writes, the one that gets around everyone dying in the original by Shakespeare by including a time machine, a bi-curious Laertes, and a rocking Jesus Christ with a sexy swimmer’s body. When the ACLU gets involved in the steely person of Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), it’s really the only logical way the story could go.
The writing by Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady is post-politically correct, poking a well-aimed stick into the eye of the uptight, the faux-hip, and the too touchy. Coogan’s performance as the lost soul is as brilliant as it is ebulliently wacky. The calm that is merely the outward manifestation of a deep-seated hysteria, the furtive shifting of the eyes that gives away his conviction that, as he puts it, hope is a demon bitch, but one he can’t foreswear. His physical humor is flawless, whether skating with less than aplomb, using a long pink balloon in the most inadvertantly sexually suggestive manner seen cinematically in this or any other year, or puffing himself up in the face of yet another disaster, actual or imminent. He’s equally adept with subtlety, as Dana beautifully and breezily misses the point of almost any given situation. The supporting cast nimbly assists. Elizabeth Shue as herself, sort of, is ironic, but never arch. Joseph Julian Soria as Octavio, the sullen bane of Dana’s teaching existence is not just funny, he’s also charismatic and shows some serious acting chops as the title character in Dana’s play. The one to watch, though, is Arquette, in a part with few lines, he is almost inert, except for the eyes crinkled beneath a puckered brow and a rooster haircut as Gary struggles to grasp even the tiniest particle of what is going on around him. Struggles hard, and fails completely.
Savvy direction by Fleming ramps up the absurdity level with clever cutting and perfect timing. He focuses on Coogan’s performance, but he also gets the importance of reaction shots to him. They run the gamut. There are the drama geeks who worship him, Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), who prays for understanding to overcome her nervousness around “ethnics” and Rand (Skylar Astin), the drama queen who hasn’t quite worked through his sexuality. There are the “ethnics” who snarl at him with insults that aren’t good-humored. There the bit players, who are no less impressive, such as clerk in a copy center whose discomfort over Dana’s musings over the right color of paper on which to print socio-political agit-prop.
HAMLET 2 may, in passing, offer up a reasoned and even provocative consideration of the place of art in society, the responsibility of the artist. Interesting, sure. But the more important thing is that it is wicked and sublimely savage as it makes those elements manifest in the most unlikely of fashions. And the most important thing is this. It will make you laugh out loud. A lot.