Friday, November 16, 2012

Hamlet 2 Disappoints, But Not For The Reasons One Might Suspect

The Good: Moments of wonderful, irreverent humor
The Bad: Far too serious, Predictable character arcs, Terrible editing
The Basics: Nowhere near as funny as it could be, Hamlet 2 tells a strangely developed - if predictable - character study of a drama teacher and his terrible production.

[Note: This was originally written for the theatrical release, hence some of its tone.  Enjoy!]

As summer winds its way to a close and Summer Blockbuster Season fades into the Late Autumn Oscar Grab, I more or less ended my theater going months with a dud. Figuring the day before most people end up back at their respective schools would be a good time to take in a matinee, I took in the only movie that interested me of the final crop of flicks in theaters: Hamlet 2. Arguably, this ought to be one of the summer's more obvious dumb comedies, so it ought not to be much of a surprise - at least for my regular readers - that I would be panning it. The thing is, Hamlet 2 is much better in some ways than one might expect and glaringly deficient in the others.

I went to see Hamlet 2 because as a writer, I was eager to see what someone would do for a sequel to "Hamlet" as a school play. I knew the basic premise of the play within the film, that Hamlet is rescued by Jesus in a time machine. And that part works, wonderfully; it is too bad that is only in the last act of the movie and the process of getting there is excruciating. So, instead of being a parody of Hamlet or even the bible (both of which I was up for), Hamlet 2 is much more a parody of films like High School Musical and that phenomenon than anything actually literary.

Dana Marschz is an out of work actor turned high school drama teacher who has had a mediocre career in that field with his two drama students making plays of works that were previously films. Panned by the school newspaper, Dana struggles for acceptance and legitimacy while he and his unhappy wife try to have a baby. The next school year, Dana finds that his class is filled with ethnic minorities from the wrong side of the tracks who have no real interest and he sets to trying to inspire them.

Soon, though, Dana's life is turned upside down when the principal decides there will be no more drama class after the current semester. Acting on advice from his biggest critic, Dana sets about to writing a play that his misfit actors can perform: Hamlet 2. Threatened by parents, the school and his wife, Dana risks it all to put on a play that might save his school's drama program.

The fundamental problem with Hamlet 2 is that it takes itself far too seriously to actually be a comedy. That might sound strange, but it has the virtue of being true. Writers Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming take time to develop Dana as a protagonist. Yes, this might be the first time I have ever criticized a film for having too much character development, but Hamlet 2 has it. As the movie goes on, Dana continues to get put down and sink further and further into an actual tragic hero. And while he describes his life as a parody of a tragedy, as more things are taken from him, he begins to do what he actually set out to do: get his students invested in the process of creating art. For sure, writer and director Andrew Fleming is making a satire of teacher inspiration films like Dead Poet's Society and Dangerous Minds, which are referenced in the film, but the result is something that plays far too earnestly to be a true parody. Yes, Hamlet 2 becomes the schmaltzy teacher inspiration film that it wants so much to mock.

But more than that, Hamlet 2 suffers because while it belabors developing a character and telling a story, it completely glosses over the key character element. In short, Dana struggles because of some undefined mistreatment by his father, for which he seeks to rewrite Hamlet so that Hamlet might get to the point where he forgives his father. The movie fails to capitalize on this one essential element by not revealing just what was so horrible about the relationship between Dana and his father.

The predictability of the little tragedies in Dana's life are only topped by the overall predictability of the narrative. While I was expecting something of a Kevin Smith-like smart dick-and-fart joke movie, that seldom happens in Hamlet 2. Instead, the movie evolves as a very blase collection of characters who all undergo the most predictable of changes. So Epiphany, for example, comes to love her hispanic classmates and even begins to emulate them. Sadly, having the meek white girl boosting monitors to try to fit expresses a terrible stereotype, but her character is racist, so we're supposed to figure it's okay to laugh.

Much of Hamlet 2 feels like it is a setup for a jingle, in this case "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" is a hilarious song, well executed, clever, ironic and flashy. It is absolutely wonderful and the viewer spends the whole movie waiting for this type of humor and style. Unfortunately for Hamlet 2, it comes far, far after most viewers will have stopped caring. In fact, with the film nicely labeled as acts, the movie could have done without acts one through three and just started with act four. Indeed, more of the play, as opposed to the drama in getting the play on the stage, could have made this film palatable, even a winner.

One suspects there is plenty of material available for it. Throughout the movie there are some of the worst cuts I've seen in modern cinema. Indeed, there are obvious splices at points where two different takes were used and I hope it was just the print I was watching, but the synch was terrible (lips frequently did not match the words). One suspects that when Hamlet 2 hits DVD there will be tons of deleted scenes, perhaps almost enough to put together another movie.

Outside the predictability of the character arcs, the obvious plot, the terrible editing and the surprising amount of seriousness that Fleming and Brady took to develop Dana, there is nothing wrong with the movie. Indeed, on the acting front, there is much to look forward to. Amy Poehler arrives late to Hamlet 2 as an ACLU lawyer and she would have been completely hilarious had virtually all of her scenes not been in the trailers. Poehler utilizes her usual grace and sense of comic timing to quickly establish a very funny supporting character.

But most of the movie centers around Steve Coogan. Coogan, whom I had only seen before in Marie Antoinette (reviewed here!) is funny, to be sure, however he spends most of the movie acting like Michael McDonald of Mad TV fame. His sense of comic timing, especially the way he holds his posture while wearing briefs, is very much in the style of McDonald and one begins to wonder after a few moments where the character stares at the camera befuddled why the director didn't just go with Michael McDonald. That said, Coogan does a good job hitting his comedic marks when they are there to be hit and establishes a character we can almost empathize with when the movie turns more toward the dramatic.

Largely, Hamlet 2 seems to want to be an argument in favor of supporting artistic expression, even when the results are terrible. Even if that were the film I had been prepared to see, Hamlet 2 fails to do that. Like most comedies, the events in this movie lack consequences. So, for example, Dana falls down repeatedly on his roller skates (one of the most predictable and least successful gags throughout the movie) and never is truly injured. Similarly, his alcoholism is planted early in the film and when he has the obvious comedic relapse, there are no real ramifications (save, I suppose, inspiration).

All in all, Hamlet 2 is slow, disappointing and predictable where it could have been edgy and funny. It is so very bland in this regard that I continue to find myself surprised that this ended up rated "R." I am sure I have seen PG-13 with worse language and nudity than this (which didn't seem to have any of note).

On DVD, Hamlet 2 gets no better. There are the usual deleted scenes, a commentary track and a singalong for "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." There are the usual featurettes with casting and making-of anecdotes from cast and crew, but none are particularly insightful. In fact, the only DVD bonus feature that is at all impressive is the hilarious side by side presentation of Erin Brockovich from Hamlet 2 with the film version. That's worth checking out, but not enough to justify spending money on this DVD.

As summer blockbuster season comes to an end, it's worth taking a pass on Hamlet 2 and reading a book instead.

For other works with Catherine Keener, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Where The Wild Things Are
The Soloist
An American Crime
The 40 Year Old Virgin


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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