What's more disappointing and frustrating than an unfunny comedy? Bad action flicks at least keep exploding; tedious dramas can be slept through; and often, the lame thriller can be re-cast as unintentional comedy. The intentional comedy that doesn't work, though, just keeps reminding you that it's not delivering the laughs you hoped for.
Such was the piteous state of my time at Hamlet 2, which in previews had promised to be a funny, if not terribly original, account of a disastrously bad high school play. Instead, the film, directed and co-written by Adam Fleming (Nancy Drew), trundled along missing its comedic marks for over an hour, before resolving in an over-the-top, 10-minute-long set piece that would have saved us all a lot of trouble if it had just been posted to an Internet funny-film site without all the preamble.
In the story, Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is among the zillions of failed actors -- we see some of his less-than-notable work in a brief prologue -- forced to downscale drastically. For Marschz, that means teaching drama at Tucson's West Mesa High School, a brutalist concrete bunker in a run-down neighborhood.
As an educator, Marschz is bereft of ideas -- he favors re-staging recent films -- and interested students. Last year's play -- a two-person re-work of Erin Brockovich, staged in the corner of the cafeteria -- drew few attendees and scathing, if wildly articulate, reviews from the school newspaper's 14-year-old drama critic.
That's just the start of the body blows that push the already beleaguered Marschz close to the edge. At home, he's beset by his unsupportive, flinty wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, always welcome), and the presence of a dull boarder (David Arquette, rarely welcome).
Professionally, things could hardly get more stressful: The drama curriculum is set to be cancelled, and Marschz has a new batch of obstreperous students ("a class of ethnics"). Responding to a challenge from the aforementioned pint-sized critic, Marschz also decides to write an original work.
After dipping into his "inspiration box," Marschz comes up with a sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, titled, naturally, "Hamlet 2." Brie dismissively asks, "Doesn't everybody die at the end of the first one?" to which Marschz replies, "I have a device."
It's a more literal than literary device: It's a time machine, which, among other dramaturgical benefits, allows Marschz to add subplots about his father, God and a thoroughly modern Jesus, with "a swimmer's body."
This all sounds like it should be funny, but these silly ideas never translate into real laughs. Throughout, there's an air of trying too hard (a sure laugh-killer), with Coogan leading the overly frantic charge. Ten minutes in, I was already bored with his constant mugging and not-that-funny, near-constant meltdowns.
Really, the funniest bit was a throwaway scene: a bit of silly physical comedy in which an inebriated Marschz tries unsuccessfully to roller-skate into a liquor store. If nothing else, Coogan took some bruises for his art. (Though apparently, not on his lily-white, middle-aged backside, a gleaming, blemish-free sight we're treated to twice.)
Too much of the humor relies on profanity -- as if, after all these years, simply hearing somebody scream the f-word still makes us guffaw. Consequently, this dum-dum movie is rated R, when a more judicious use of the popular qualifier would have made Hamlet 2 a PG-13, and thus more accessible to less-critical teens who might find these high school hi-jinks funny.
Despite its marketing, Hamlet 2 isn't so much a comedy about a disastrous play -- and that's good, since Waiting for Guffman pretty much locked that up -- but rather a loose parody of those inspirational teacher movies, such as Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society. Though in a mark of how poorly written this film is, we never see any transitional moment: Marschz's students go from being harassing thugs to committed participants in a bizarre project, i.e. their lame-ass teacher's self-serving mess of a musical play. I'm not saying we should be vicariously inspired as per the spoofed genre, but even comedy demands a cogent narrative.
If you slog it out, the final third of the film holds a few slim rewards, namely the arrival of Amy Poehler as a hard-assed ACLU attorney, and the staging of the musical "Hamlet 2." The play itself is relatively well produced, but loopy enough that'll you'll laugh once or twice. One tune is an awkward misfire ("Raped in the Face"), but the show-stopper, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," is catchy and a righteous kick at the syrupy Jesus-is-my-pal music that passes for contemporary Christian teen-rock. But really, this could have just been a funny music video.