'Hamlet 2': A Fellow of Infinite Jest

Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, the talentless actor turned even less talented drama teacher, in
Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, the talentless actor turned even less talented drama teacher, in "Hamlet 2." (By Cathy Kanavy -- Focus Features Via Associated Press)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Critics are rarely the hero of anything in the movies. They are at best incompetent weasels, one notch below the "those that can't do, teach" category. At worst, they are Machiavellian figures, like Addison DeWitt, the suave but slimy manipulator in "All About Eve."

Enter Noah Sapperstein, the high school drama critic whose devastating reviews set in motion the absurd chain reactions of "Hamlet 2." Featuring the brilliant British comic Steve Coogan, with star turns from Amy Poehler, Elisabeth Shue and David Arquette, "Hamlet 2" is a dazzling little comedy that seems, on first glance, to be having a lot of fun with the stock figures of the high school musical and the inspirational-teacher flick. But Noah, a diminutive figure played by Shea Pepe, quotes the French literary critic Roland Barthes and all but begs you to take the film seriously as social commentary.

Noah's target is Dana Marschz (Coogan), the hapless man-child and talentless actor who is spinning out the tail end of his high school drama fantasies into incipient middle age, stuck in Tucson and restaging not-so-great Hollywood films ("Erin Brockovich") as plays. Nothing in his life is working. The drama program is on the chopping block, his wife is more than ready to be pregnant and visibly impatient with her addlebrained husband. With an old DWI on his record, Dana is forced to get around pedestrian-hostile Tucson on roller skates, a skill he hasn't really mastered.

All Dana has is a boundless enthusiasm for a role nobody has really asked him to play: the teacher-inspirer-artist who leads kids to the glory of adolescent epiphany (which happens to be the name of one of his star students, Epiphany Sellars, played by Phoebe Strole). He knows the precedents, the Mr. Hollands and their opuses, the Dead Poets Societies and their sensitive boys who want to write poetry, not make war. He can't act and he can't teach drama -- but he can behave dramatically, and perhaps that's enough.

He is, of course, looking for redemption. He will save the drama program, save his own job and expand minds by staging a grand musical extravaganza. It turns out to be an acid-trip version of "Hamlet," and with musical numbers such as "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," it is a worthy successor to another musical-within-a-movie, the Hitler farce from Mel Brooks's "The Producers."

Coogan's manic dance of mugging and bathos is done on the razor's edge of believability, but he is pure bliss in the role, by turns hysterically funny and wildly pathetic. Under the direction of Andrew Fleming, Coogan is supported by a strong cast. Catherine Keener somehow packages and sells the weird mix of narcissism, neediness, passive-aggression and drunken zaniness that scriptwriters Pam Brady and Fleming have concocted for Dana's wife, Brie. Few in the large cast of characters are simply one-dimensional caricatures. The gay kid (Skylar Astin) is also the class suck-up and a Judas figure. The thug (Joseph Julian Soria) has trouble at home, which perhaps explains his tough-guy exterior. Or maybe not. Shue, in a characteristically weird meta-twist, has dropped in from the land of Non Sequitur to play herself, an actress who has given up the blood sport of Hollywood to be a nurse at a fertility clinic.

Fleming has paced his film with the manic energy of a screwball comedy, and he hits enough of the sacred cows of political correctness that no one cow can feel particularly slighted. But this isn't blunderbuss comedy, firing in all directions in hope of landing a few good shots. Follow the trail initiated by the tiny character of Noah, and you realize that Fleming has a coherent and powerful target in his sights.

"Hamlet 2" may be one of the better films (and certainly one of the funniest) about the whole sorry business of arts education made in recent memory. Noah is just one of several characters from what might be called the support staff of the arts: critics, educators, administrators, promoters, funders and passionate patrons. This ancillary world is filled with admirable figures, Noah among them. It's also home to a lot of nobodies and, worse, to people who are so inept and lacking in taste that they are a menace to art everywhere. Poehler's Cricket Feldstein, an ACLU lawyer, is one of Fleming's characteristic adult interlopers -- whose engagement with the arts comes from the outside, motivated by ulterior purposes and, very likely, serious personality flaws.

Dana is also from this world, and by making him the hero of "Hamlet 2," Fleming underscores just how badly served kids really are. It's not just a lack of support for theater programs that is impoverishing kids' lives, it's all too much support from the wrong people, teachers like Dana who have no business teaching drama. Dana's ridiculous musical is a lot of self-indulgent piffle, and that's the point: Something is rotten in the Denmark of high school arts education, and it may well be bad art. Props to the first administrator who makes "Hamlet 2" required viewing at the next convention of people moping over the sad state of arts literacy in America.

Hamlet 2 (92 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Avalon) is rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content.

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