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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I just know that some critic somewhere is going to review Hamlet 2 and rhetorically ask, "To see or not to see? That is the question?" If you come across one who does, close down your browser window immediately and call the movie police. There are two kinds of comedies: those that lend themselves to bad puns, and those that do not. Hamlet 2 falls into the latter category. It employs an off-kilter style of humor that thrives on a seemingly-impossible mixture of subtlety and outlandishness. The big finale centers on a song called "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," and yet the punchline of the joke isn't the blasphemy, but rather the desperation that leads to its composition. Anyone who would laugh at the "to see or not to see" joke just flat out isn't going to "get" this picture.

Steve Coogan - a British actor perhaps best known in the States for playing the director who steps on a land mine in Tropic Thunder - plays Dana Marshcz, a failed actor who has taken up teaching drama at a Tucson, AZ high school. His life is essentially a shambles: he is unable to get his wife (Catherine Keener) pregnant, a bunch of students who don't care about drama have been dropped into his class, and he has unresolved anger toward his father that just fuels disappointment in how unsuccessful his acting career has become. And to make matters worse, the school is preparing to close down the drama department due to lack of funds.

Dana can't even begin to fathom that the school would cut arts funding, so he decides it is up to his class to save it by putting on production big and exciting enough to draw sell-out crowds. Dana's full of bad ideas, but the one that seems least bad to him (and to the pint-sized drama critic who writes for the school paper and offers sympathetic counsel) is a sequel to William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Of course, everyone dies at the end of the original play, so Dana devises a musical involving Hamlet, a time machine, and Jesus Christ. Sigmund Freud would have a field day analyzing all the daddy issues infused in the work. When the administration gets wind of the controversial production, they refuse to allow it to be performed on school grounds. Dana rallies his class, and they put the show on somewhere else. The uproar draws the attention of the media, protestors, and also an ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler).

In a wonderfully kooky subplot, Dana discovers actress Elisabeth Shue working as a fertility clinic nurse after having quit show business. She represents a measure of success to him, and his desire to win her approval adds some underlying comic-tragedy to the story.

Hamlet 2 was one of the audience favorites at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. In some ways, that's the ultimate venue for the movie. Festival audiences are not only appreciative of satiric comedies, they also get a lot of the inside humor. In this case, many of the jokes revolve around the insecurities of aspiring actors and the self-loathing that often springs up when they are unable to get the big breaks that have pre-occupied their every waking thought. I'm not sure mainstream audiences are going to find such jokes as amusing; this isn't as accessible a comedy as other Sundance faves like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. Despite the fact that the picture is getting a wide release, it really helps if you're into those offbeat indie kinds of comedies that you'd expect to see in Park City.

I happen to like those types of pictures, and for that reason, I had a good time. Unlike Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express, Hamlet 2 didn't really make me laugh hard; it was more like a consistent series of chuckles. But that's still good. I admire the comedic spirit at work here. I like the way the movie isn't afraid to use neuroticism and low self-esteem as inspirations for humor. I appreciate the story's insistence that art can - and should - be provocative, daring, and heartfelt.

Most of all, I liked the manic performance from Steve Coogan. I don't think too many actors would have had the guts to commit to this role. They would have wanted Dana to be likeable or heroic. He's not. The guy is genuinely pathetic. There's no getting around it. He's stuck teaching drama and staging bad plays because his talent is minimal. Part of Coogan's charm is that instead of making Dana more and more sympathetic, he actually kind of makes the character less and less so as the story goes on. This is a very funny performance of comic desperation. Failure to mount the production would be nothing less than complete failure for Dana, and since he's had so much of it already, he forges ahead at all costs, determined to prove himself to…well, himself. (The titular play is without a doubt the film's high point.)

Hamlet 2 - directed by Andrew Fleming, who co-wrote with Pam Brady - is, on the surface, a silly comedy, but I think it's about something deeper underneath. That Dana's play borders on blasphemy is not so much an attempt by the filmmaker to be provocative but rather to reflect on provocative art, so much of which does flaunt traditional religious imagery. (Remember that chocolate Jesus statue?) I think the film could have played some things up even more, like the way school arts programs are often under-funded when no one would dream of taking money from sports programs. But there's something admirable about a comedy that celebrates the provocative nature of art, even if that comedy doesn't quite provoke as much as it could have.

( out of four)

Hamlet 2 is rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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