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There’s lots of ham to love in ‘Hamlet 2’

POSTED: September 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/Focus Features

Steve Coogan plays a failed actor turned bad drama teacher who tries to save the drama department at his school in "Hamlet 2." Amy Poehler plays an ACLU lawyer who gets involved in the school's controversial musical.

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Satire is back, and the world is already becoming a better place. At least, a funnier place.

The Judd Apatow crowd has dominated Hollywood comedy the past few years with its loser-facing-a-life-crisis humor, but the two best comedies of the summer are take-no-prisoners satires. You've already heard about "Tropic Thunder," a loving attack on Hollywood, but you might have overlooked "Hamlet 2," a hilarious satire that pokes fun at amateur theater, self-indulgent actors and people at pretty much all points on the political spectrum.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is having a difficult life. He failed as a professional actor and is now an even worse high school drama teacher.

He and his sardonic wife (Catherine Keener) are broke and unable to conceive a child. Then his drama class is overrun by Latino kids who transferred into the class only because there is asbestos in the trailer classrooms in which the school had stuck them.

The suddenly "ethnic" drama class is actually a storytelling device: "Hamlet 2" parodies earnest-teacher-meets-troubled-youths movies like "Dangerous Minds" and "Freedom Writers."

When the high school announces plans to cut the drama program altogether, Marschz takes desperate measures by writing and staging a sequel to "Hamlet" that is inappropriate in too many ways to list here.

To give you an idea: Hamlet travels time with Jesus in order to prevent all the deaths that happen at the end of the original play, singing and dancing Broadway-style to songs inspired by the sexual abuse Marschz suffered at the hands of this father.

The movie spends very little time showing the play within the movie, focusing instead on the furor caused by the mere idea of such an offensive, terrible play.

The principal tries to stop the production, the media blows the whole thing into a cause célèbre and the ACLU gets involved in the form of Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), a foul-mouthed, opportunistic lawyer who loves to toss around the fact that she married a Jew like it's a sign of street cred. And along the way, Marschz meets Elisabeth Shue (playing herself), who has quit acting and become a nurse.

This absurd romp is filled with funny performances. Poehler is her usual fearless self. Shue, who often comes across as detached and artificial, is as down-to-earth and charming as she has ever been. Keener is at her sarcastic best (and no one does sarcasm better). The young actors playing Marschz' students embrace the provocative content with abandon.

But while these roles add much, nothing distracts from the force of nature that is Steve Coogan in this movie. No other comedic performance this year - maybe in several years - shows the range of Coogan's absurd, sympathetic, endlessly earnest yet consistently ridiculous drama teacher. Coogan does pratfalls, cerebral wit and all points in between.

The last comedic performance that made me sit up and take notice of an actor in this way was Steve Carell in "40 Year Old Virgin."

Satire isn't for everyone, especially a movie that pokes fun at religion in any way. But there's something very right about a movie that takes shots at both conservatives and the ACLU. All demographics are fair game, but none of the humor is mean-spirited.

We all tend to take our political and social positions too seriously. If "Hamlet 2" has any agenda, it's to remind us to laugh at ourselves.

"Hamlet 2" is tragically limping through its theatrical run, and I urge you to seek it out before it disappears.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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