Hamlet 2: Andrew Fleming’s Comedy

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Premieres)–How would residents of Tucson, Arizona, which is the setting of Andrew Fleming’s new comedy, “Hamlet 2,” react to a film that satirizes the mores of their lifestyles and educational system, and then ends with a performance of the Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus in the background

Hopefully with smile.

It was only a matter of time before British icon Steve Coogan (better known for his creations of Alan Partridge and Tom Saxondale) finds the right American vehicle for his considerable skills, and indeed, “Hamlet 2” is a star driven comedy that displays his talent to an advantage, allowing him to dominate every scene he is in (which is most of the film).

Coogan plays Dana Marschz (you’re not supposed to pronounce his name properly) a deluded, talentless high-school drama teacher who, out of desperation to save his career, attempts a new, “daring” show. This season, you can see Coogan in top form in another wild satire, Ben Stiller’s movie-within-movie “Tropic Thunder.”

I have followed director Andy Fleming’s checkered, hit-and-miss career from its origins, beginning with “Threesome,” continuing with the moderately funny Watergate spoof “Dick,” but then rapidly declining with such trivial studio fare as “The In-Laws” and most recently the pointless remake of “Nancy Drew.”

“Hamlet 2” belongs to Fleming’s more successful endeavors. In aspiration, talent, and production values, it’s placed somewhere between his indies and studio movies, though for an indie, the budget is considerable, about $9 million. I hope that with the marketing savvy of Focus Features and the right positioning, the comedy will recoup its expense and finds its audience.

Co-penned by Fleming and Pam Brady, the script is quite uneven, with witty and funny scenes alternating with flat and obvious ones. Deceptively original, “Hamlet 2” is actually a high-concept comedy, a pastiche of various generic strands: the “Let’s Put on a Show,” with the fresh angle of school’s new demographics (gay and Latino students in prominent roles); the “Eccentric Teacher,” blessed (or burdened) with illusions and delusions, and so on.

As such, the film brings to mind Christopher Guest’s wittier and subtler comedies, specifically his masterwork “Waiting for Guffman,” as well as the more contrived and gimmicky “Happy, Texas,” a small-town comedy that also spoofed provincial lifestyles and also exploited the gay-straight theme, though manipulatively without the charm of “Hamlet 2.”

The link with “Happy, Texas” is furthered enhanced due to the fact that Focus Features grabbed the worldwide rights to the comedy within hours after its world premiere, paying a lucrative $10 million, the same amount that Harvey Weinstein paid for “Happy, Texas” back in 1999. However, while “Happy, Texas,” was both an artistic and commercial flop, “Hamlet 2” is more satisfying on both levels, and it might prove to have legs in specialized venues and midnight showings.

The saga begins with clips from Dana’s professional acting career, the highlights of which are commercials for Jack La Lanne’s Power Juicer and herpes medication. After this “glorious” beginning, he’s assigned to be a drama teacher at Tucson’s West Mesa High, where he presents productions inspired by his fave movies, like “Dead Poets Society” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus”; it’s no coincidence that both films are about instructors and played by comedians (Robin Williams in the former and Richard Dreyfuss in the latter).

The reviews of Dana’s works are scathing, written as they are by the school paper’s critic (Shea Pepe), who is a ninth-grader! With threats to cut the budgets from the arts curriculum (which are justified, judging by the results), the critic recommends to the board that Dana direct an original rather than a transfer-remake of a popular movie (Dana has also staged a theatrical production of the Oscar-winning film, “Erin Brockovich”)

The principal, Rocker (Marshall Bell), and the rest of the community want to pull plug. An issue of freedom-of-expression You bet. The ACLU sends legal advisor Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) to make sure that the show goes on. It does, and “Hamlet 2” proves an entertaining multi-media show.

Several of Dana’s bright and reliable students, among them Rand Rosin (Skylar Astin) and Christian (Phoebe Strole), are gay, even if they have not come out yet. However, the school’s demographics changes, when the new semester brings tyro students-and from Dana’s POV new recruits. If the drama club grows, it’s not so much a reflection of an increased interest in the subject, but of a more prosaic one: the cancellation of classes held in asbestos-laden portable rooms.

Hence, the formerly white-bread group is now more colorfully diverse, but also more divided, with the addition of Latino “gangbangers.” Soon, Dana proudly unleashes the acting talent in such hostile pupils as Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), casting him as Hamlet, while adding other Latinos to the ensemble.

Vive la petite difference: Since originality is called for, in the sequel “Hamlet 2,” Dana takes a liberating and innovative approach by reversing the deaths (and other “minor” details) in Shakespeare’s play as we know it. The show also includes portraitures of Hillary Clinton, Einstein, and Jesus Christ (played by Dana), who walk-on-water in the production number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” accompanied by the Gay Men’s Choir of Tucson.

It’s too bad that the gifted supporting cast doesn’t get much to do. Catherine Keener, an actress deft in comedy and drama, plays Brie, Dana’s angry, sharp-tongued wife, who’s fed up with their impoverished life; unable to pay for the house, they’re forced to have a lodger. David Arquette is assigned the small role of Gary, the school’s gym instructor and the couple’s boarder.

But some of the gimmicky casting doesn’t work. Elisabeth Shue plays a character named “Elisabeth Shue,” who’s given up acting to be a nurse in Tucson. The strategy is similar to Soderbergh’s using Julia Roberts as an actress like her in “Ocean’s Twelve,” a trick that also didn’t pay off.

Like every Fleming feature, “Hamlet 2” has dead spots, in which the humor gets too obvious, with too many recycled jokes. However, production values of the film, which moves rather fast for most of its 92-minute duration, are polished, particularly Tony Fanning’s witty production design, which is a bright, funny send-up of Tucson, Arizona.

The comedy will be particularly appealing to those viewers (like me), who have participated as students in amteur dramatic clubs.

End Note: Melonie Diaz, Rising Star

It may be a coincidence, or just the beginning of a bright career, but in the course of a week, I saw Melonie Diaz in at least three vastly Sundance movies: the communal comedy “Be Kind Rewind,” as an aggressive entrepreneur; the romantic drama “American Son,” as the protagonist’s shy girlfriend, and “Hamlet 2,” as a member of the school.

Cast:

Steve Coogan Catherine Keener David Arquette Marshall Bell Melonie Diaz Joseph Julian Soria Skylar Astin Phoebe Strole Michael Esparza Arnie Pantjola Natalie Amenula Nat Faxon Shea Pepe Elisabeth Shue Amy Poehler Credits

Focus Features release of an L+E Pictures production. Produced by Eric Eisner, Leonid Rozhetskin, Aaron Ryder. Executive producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Michael Flynn. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Screenplay, Fleming, Pam Brady. Camera: Alexander Gruszynski. Editor: Jeff Freeman. Music: Ralph Sall. Production designer: Tony Fanning. Costume designer: Jill Newell. Art director: Guy Barnes. Set decorator: Wendy Barnes. Sound: Paul Cusak.

Running time: 92 Minutes.