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The play's the thing

Steve Coogan masters tragic irony in Hamlet 2
By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 19, 2008
3.5 3.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Hamlet 2

Hamlet 2 | Directed by Andrew Fleming | Written by Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming | with Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Melonie Diaz, Elisabeth Shue, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler | Focus Features | 92 minutes

Cheese Danish: Hamlet Variations We'd Like To See. By Peter Keough.

Interview: Steve Coogan. By Peter Keough.

Like Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2 makes its satirical intent known straight away with a flurry of phony, funny commercials. The ad for Herpecol features a genial performance by Dana Marschz (the last name pronounced like that of Steve Martin’s character Michael Hufruhurr in The Man with Two Brains), who’s played with a heartbreaking, hilarious combination of vanity, guilelessness, and ineptitude by Steve Coogan. (You’ll recall that Coogan plays the director in Tropic Thunder.)

Marschz, like Thunder’s Tugg Speedman, has arrived at a critical point in his career. Is he a talentless failure? Unlike Speedman, he confronts this question not on the set of a blockbuster movie but when a prepubescent critic rakes his latest production, another adoption of an inappropriate Hollywood movie, this one put on by Marschz’s Tucson-high-school drama club. That difference in scale, and Coogan’s performance, helps elevate Hamlet 2 to a level beyond the caustic, black-comic satire of Satire. So does the film’s ambition: divided into five acts, directed with Olympian compassion and aloofness by Andrew Fleming, it fulfills the classical dramatic structure, achieving the virtues of pathos and catharsis.

But don’t let that put you off. Despite, or because of, such underlying gravity, this might be the funniest comedy of the summer, if only for its brutally on-target parody of sentimental exploitative Hollywood pap like Dangerous Minds. Disrespected at home (the film loses points by typecasting Catherine Keener as the bitchy wife), Marschz is held in contempt at school, dissed by the tiny critic from the school paper and by everyone else, except for two equally deluded adoring students (plucky newcomers Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole). When the school dumps some tough-seeming minority kids into his class and then threatens to cut out funding altogether, Marschz realizes that the only way he can get his second act together is by inspiring them all to put on his masterpiece, a sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy, but set to music and with a happy ending.

And why not? The Bard might well have invented the sequel (starting with Henry VI Parts 1, 2and3), so why not a Hamlet 2? The death (SPOILERS!) of every major character might pose a problem, but nothing ingenuity (a time machine? a cameo by Einstein? by Jesus?) and determination can’t handle. And Marschz himself has a lot in common with his hero. Like the Dane, he’s ineffectual, beset by wicked forces, and on poor terms with his deceased father. Unlike that prototypical self-conscious hero, however, Marschz is nearly devoid of introspection and despair and even doubt.

And so he triumphs, thanks in part to some unexpected help not just from the formerly scoffing students but from Elisabeth Shue (casting Elisabeth Shue as herself gets back some of the points lost with Catherine Keener), who’s left soul-destroying Hollywood to work as a nurse. True, what shows up on the stage would appear to call for a budget greater than that of the entire Tucson school system, but, more so even than the show in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, the bits and pieces seen of Marschz’s brainchild are entertaining and moving.

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  Topics: Reviews , Christopher Guest, William Shakespeare, Steve Martin,  More more >
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