‘Hamlet 2′ a paean to persistent pursuit of illusion

Posted Aug. 31, 2008, at 9:11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

HAMLET 2 directed by Andrew Fleming, written by Fleming and Pam Brady, 92 minutes, rated R.

Andrew Fleming’s “Hamlet 2” stars Steve Coogan as the delusional, middle-aged mess Dana Marschz, a homely, failed actor cum high school drama teacher who looks like Tiny Tim by way of a train wreck. And that’s being kind.

Given how beautifully Coogan plays Dana, it’s also a compliment.

About Dana — he certainly is a hive of complications, all springing from his love of the theater, which at once has lifted him up and tossed him down. It all went wrong for him in his youth, when he was unfortunate enough to find modest success in a series of television commercials, which gave him that deadly commodity known as hope.

His vitae is vapid. For instance, he appeared in an advertisement that featured him aggressively manning the helm of the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer. No apple was too large for him to squeeze, no mango too firm for him to mutilate.

In another commercial, one filmed in a fuzzy, dreamlike haze, Dana sports a blond wig, a festive ascot, and he looks happy — genuinely happy — to promote a product whose aim it is to conceal a herpes outbreak from his sexual partner.

Sure, Dana’s ethics were questionable back in the day, but at least he was working. At least he was fulfilling his calling to the theatrical arts. At the time, he was convinced better things would come along. Only they didn’t.

What did come along was a messy bout with alcoholism and then, worse for Dana, no additional offers for work. With his acting career in the can, he and his stoner wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), moved to Tucson, Ariz., where they took in a swarthy boarder (David Arquette) to help pay the bills, and where Dana began staging disastrous productions of such popular movies as “Erin Brockovich.”

Each play was vilified by the school drama critic, Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe, excellent), who wants Dana to step up his game or get lost. But Dana, for the most part, is unfazed by the criticism. At least he’s working. At least he’s fulfilling his calling to the theatrical arts.

And that’s the thing about Dana. In spite of all signs suggesting that he should just quit his dreams and move on, he refuses to do so. His pluck is misguided, but it’s unflagging and it’s admirable. Here is someone who believes so much in himself that his response to news that arts programming is being canceled at his high school (including his job) is to write a raunchy musical called “Hamlet 2.”

Two of his favorite performers — Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and Rand (Skylar Astil) — will star, as will a group of inner-city students, none of whom knew they wanted to act until they were touched by Dana and his runaway enthusiasm.

Based on Fleming and Pam Brady’s script, “Hamlet 2” has John Waters and Christopher Guest written all over it. And while it doesn’t achieve their plunge into unbridled subversion, it comes close in such musical numbers as “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.”

Coogan is especially good (he’s fearless, particularly when he plays Jesus), but so is Elisabeth Shue, who plays a brazen version of herself as an actress who has quit Hollywood to become a nurse at the Prickly Pear Fertility Clinic.

It’s difficult to remember a performance she has given in which she has appeared this comfortable, this loose, which likely comes from the fact that Shue herself knows how fickle Hollywood is and who apparently didn’t mind a little good-natured hair pulling when it came to this role. When she wags tongues with Dana at the end of the movie, liberally swapping spit with him with abandon, audiences will understand just how game she is to go for it here — and just how good she is as a comedian.

Adding gas to the bombast is Amy Poehler, who is a highlight as the lawyer Cricket Feldstein. She helps Dana rise up against the school board and the community in a First Amendment ploy to get his play seen and heard. Her scrappy work is our good fortune, because the show Dana produces is horrifying and hilarious, and it likely will lay audiences flat.

Grade: B

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