Steve Coogan may be the world’s current leader in turning boorish self-involvement into comedy — from his long-running Britcom persona Alan Partridge to the real-life music promoter Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People — but Hamlet 2 reveals what, for an actor hoping to conquer Hollywood, could be a crippling weakness: He can’t play an
Not even a Canadian, in fact — the script eventually tosses in a claim of Canuck heritage to explain why Coogan’s Tucson high-school teacher sounds nothing like his neighbors — but it hardly matters. The actor’s otherness is essential here, for a movie that despite surface similarities to familiar genres derives most of its laughs from an unpeggable weirdness.
The most prominent of those surface similarities, to the inspirational teacher genre, is frequently noted by Coogan himself: Playing a drama coach suddenly saddled with a bunch of kids who want nothing to do with plays (their preferred elective courses have been killed by budget cutbacks), Coogan has plenty of opportunities to view himself as a tumbleweed Mr. Holland — though the opus Coogan’s Dana Marschz eventually unveils would make fans of the Richard Dreyfuss weepie run for cover.
As a dramatist, Marschz is so untalented his productions can’t even get favorable notices from the school newspaper; a confrontation with the paper’s pint-sized critic reduces him to comic despair, but it encourages Marschz to give up his hokey film-to-stage adaptations and attempt to pen some original material that will harness the unseen talents of his new troupe.
Enter his masterpiece, Hamlet 2, which isn’t at all the play we’re expecting. (What could we expect, though, from a sequel to a masterpiece in which pretty much everybody dies?) A bizarre piece of psyche exposure that puts the Bard and Grease in a blender with Jesus Christ Superstar and Rocky Horror, it’s built up to be a car wreck but actually offers enough bizarre jolts you can imagine it being taken seriously (however briefly) by the New York theater world as a piece of pop-spoof performance art.
H2 provides the film’s climax, but getting there involves plenty of nutty subplots in addition to the expected “let’s put on a show” storyline setbacks (the production is banned from campus, for instance, when people hear about such musical numbers as “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”) and bootstrap efforts to rebound from them.
There’s Dana’s foundering marriage to Brie (Catherine Keener), a woman who has clearly put up with a lot for the sake of his never-gonna-happen acting career; on the meta side, there’s the introduction of Elizabeth Shue as a fertility-clinic nurse named Elizabeth Shue. (Shue gamely plays along with the film’s assertion that she dropped out of acting shortly after Leaving Las Vegas; glancing at her recent IMDB credits, one wonders if she wishes she’d done just that.) And, in its darkest hour, the tale presents a destitute Dana, fallen off the wagon, roller-skating into a liquor store and asking for the cheapest intoxicant he can buy. Steve Coogan may not be able to pull off an American accent, but pathetic bumbling comes easy to him. •