In Man and Superman G.B. Shaw wrote, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” He very well may have been describing Dana Marschz, a hapless drama teacher played by Steve Coogan in the new satire Hamlet 2. Marschz has an unpronounceable name, an undistinguished acting résumé that includes extra work in an Al Jazeera M.O.W., herpes commercials and a stint as Robin Williams’s stand-in on the Patch Adams set. A self admitted “little boy from a dairy farm in Manitoba who can’t act very well,” he leaves the “glamour” of being an unemployed actor in Hollywood and lands in Tucson, Arizona as a drama teacher.
When we first meet Dana he’s directing the latest in his series of stage adaptations of famous films. In short order his production of Erin Brockovich, featuring his only two drama students, earns a savage review from the school’s teenage drama critic, his class balloons in size when he inherits a group of uninterested kids looking for a quick and easy credit and he is told his drama program will be shut down next semester.
To save the program and his job he decides to stage an original work—Hamlet 2—instead of going with his original plan of a musical version of the Keanu Reeves romance The Lake House. It’s an outrageous show featuring bi-sexual characters, a time machine, Satan French-kissing the President of the United States and a musical number called Rock Me Sexy Jesus. Deemed unacceptable by the school and the community Marschz and his students, with the help of a ACLU lawyer, stage the show off school property in a last ditch attempt to make money and keep drama alive in the school.
An irreverent satire of Middle American mores Hamlet 2 starts off strong but runs out of steam in the protracted midsection of the film. Much of the blame lies with Coogan, who creates a character more suited to a skit than a full-length feature. His Dana “my life is a parody of a tragedy” Marschz is a mass of insecurity and self loathing; a man so socially inept he makes Steve Carell’s Michael Scott of The Office seem well adjusted. Audiences have embraced the Scott character, I think, because despite his foibles he seems like a decent guy underneath it all. He has the dollop of humanity that Coogan’s character lacks, and that is the downfall of Hamlet 2.
Coogan gets laughs early on as his unlucky character goes from one personal disaster to another, but the act soon grows tired. If he had taken the time to make Dana more human and less a pure comedy construct we might actually care about what happens to him. As it is he’s someone you wouldn’t want to stand in line with at Starbucks, let alone spend ninety-minutes watching on screen.
Ditto the rest of the cast. Catherine Keener, a supremely talented actress, hands in a flat and unfunny performance; David Arquette is mostly mute, required to do little more than pull faces while the rest of the juvenile cast are standard high school hard cases who eventually warm up to their teacher’s unusual ways. Think To Sir With Love without the switchblades.
More fun is Elizabeth Shue who plays herself in a through-the-looking-glass take on her real career and Amy Poehler as an anti-Semitic ACLU lawyer.
Hamlet 2’s twisted underdog story has some inspired moments and is well intentioned in its sly support of arts in schools and free speech, but is too obvious in it approach to truly have much impact.