Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2: Double trouble

Hamlet 2 (2008) • View trailer for Hamlet 2
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for teen drug use, brief nudity and considerable profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.08
Buy DVD: Hamlet 2

Steve Coogan can't act.

Not a lick.

And for a guy who has based his career on making people laugh, he's remarkably stiff, forced and humorless. Which I guess, in some circles, is supposed to make him amusing.
Hoping to bond with his new gaggle of streetwise students — like that could
ever happen! — drama instructor Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan, center) leads
them in a spirited movement exercise that eventually will be transformed into
some smutty dance moves.

I have struggled in vain to understand Coogan's rise to fame across the pond; the Brits simply adore him. Much of this seems based on his various TV shows, most notably his long-running performance as Alan Partridge. But like so many TV stars with delusions of grandeur, Coogan's fitful stabs at the big screen have been bewildering at best, and train wrecks at worst.

American fans most likely caught him as Phileas Fogg in 2004's ill-advised remake of Around the World in 80 Days, when he managed to make even the always- dependable Jackie Chan look bad. 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story defied description. Since then, Coogan has delivered a few mild giggles with minor appearances in Night at the Museum, Hot Fuzz and this summer's Tropic Thunder.

Less is more, I suppose.

Coogan can be regarded as the British answer to our own Will Ferrell: Both so-called "actors" base their entire approach on the apparent belief that their mere delivery of a line makes it funny, no matter how random the words or clumsy the execution. Like Ferrell, Coogan constantly looks helpless and frequently flails his arms, as if begging for deliverance — or, more aptly, some intelligent direction — while shamelessly mugging the camera.

I can see this being fitfully successful during short TV blackout sketches, but stretching this nonsense across a 92-minute movie is demanding more patience than any audience should be expected to grant.

Hamlet 2, Coogan's newest, merely reinforces his weaknesses. He cannot for a moment credibly inhabit the central character in Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady's bumbling script, and here's the irony: Coogan's Dana Marschz is a failed actor who, having found no other way to succeed in Show Business, has resigned himself to teaching drama at a high school in Tucson, Ariz.

But Coogan is so bad an actor, that he can't even persuasively play a guy who's a bad actor.

One of the film's fitful running gags is the fact that nobody can properly pronounce Marschz's name; trust me, that's pretty much the height of humor.

Somehow, our man-boy nebbish has survived in this new career by mounting failed stage productions of popular Hollywood movies: ghastly plays that always star the only two students — the immaculately wholesome Rand (Skylar Austin) and Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) — who faithful take his class each semester.

Then, catastrophe: Due to various school crises, all the other elective courses are canceled, and Rand, Epiphany and Marschz find their class invaded by (gasp, horror) ethnic students who of course have no knowledge of Shakespeare or any of the classic film references with which Marschz fills his speeches.

On the home front, Marschz and his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, giving pretty much the only genuinely funny performance in this mess), are so tight for cash that they've taken in a monosyllabic boarder (David Arquette, as Gary). Actually, the alcohol-swilling Brie is tight all the time; it's the only way she can stand to remain in Gary's presence, although the eventual outcome of this supposed antipathy won't come as a surprise to anybody.

Marschz, for his part, is seven years sober and tries to be patient with his wife's alcoholic indulgences, while she tries to be patient with his inability to make her pregnant. "You'd better not be shooting blanks," she warns, at which point Fleming — who also directs — pauses for a reaction, as if we've never before heard this tired line.

The film gets its eventual oomph — and has secured far too much publicity — for the crazed musical sci-fi sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet that Marschz persuades his students to mount.

This is a desperate response to the news that, as of the following semester, the drama class also will be canceled. Marschz's play is a crazy-quilt of characters and events ripped from everything from Hamlet and Star Wars to the Bible, with plenty of blasphemy, vulgarity and sexual innuendo along the way.

And, in fairness, the show-stopping production number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," is pretty funny ... although the other songs we hear in their entirety, "Raped in the Face" and "You're as Gay as the Day Is Long," are anything but. All are written by Fleming and Brady, the latter best known for her involvement with South Park, which makes sense in this context.

Once word leaks about the play's smutty content, the high school principal (Marshall Bell, nearly as dreadful as Coogan) naturally wants to shut it down; this prompts the arrival on a feisty ACLU attorney (Amy Poehler), a character inserted mostly to ensure that Jews are insulted as much as every other ethnic group in this picture.

Oh, and Tucson also turns out to be the home of former movie star Elisabeth Shue, played by Elisabeth Shue, who has abandoned show biz and become a nurse, because she grew tired of all the bad behavior in Hollywood. Which, naturally, endears her to Marschz even further ... particularly when, as part of the play's eventual audience, she applauds with enthusiastic appreciation.

Now, that's acting.

Although the play-within-the-film is pretty out there, in a so-bad-it's-good sense, slogging through the rest of the movie to reach this point simply isn't worth it. Coogan's abominable presence isn't the only impediment; the slapdash script also makes light of issues that most definitely aren't funny.

Epiphany's casual racism is handled as ineptly as Rand's repressed sexuality issues, and nothing much is made of the fact that Marschz eventually goes off the wagon but — miraculously! — somehow doesn't relapse into full-blown alcoholism.

Late August and early September are historic cinematic dumping grounds, and I can sympathize with the desperation that might make critics clutch at this film's climactic production numbers, after enduring a string of losers like Death Race, The House Bunny, College, Disaster Movie, The Rocker, Mirrors and several others that arrived during the previous few weeks. But don't for a moment be tricked into believing that Hamlet 2 is worth any of your time.

As for you, Mr. Coogan ... please, do us all a favor, and get a real job.

No comments:

Post a Comment