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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Son of Hamlet? (Hamlet 2)

A comedy of drama

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Satire always needs a target, and the funniest satires usually have several. Hamlet 2 shoots widely but aims mostly at one social problem and one personality type. The problem is the elimination of arts funding in public schools; the type is a pretentious wannabe artist-theater division.

For all that, Hamlet 2 is not among the funniest of satires, though it does have its amusing moments. The blueprint sounds more humorous than the execution. Just think of it: a sequel to Hamlet? Everyone died at the end of the first one, right?

Rubbery-faced Steve Coogan plays Mr. Marschz, an actor of little talent and a playwright even less gifted. After a series of starring roles in TV commercials for Juice Master and herpes medication, Marschz withdraws into the wilderness-literally. He's reduced to teaching high school drama in Tucson, Ariz., shown as sun-baked, dusty and bleak. Normally he has only two students, a prissy preppy called Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and the gay thespian Rand (Skylar Astin), whom he deploys in his own risible adaptations of Erin Brockovich and other Hollywood hits.

One day enrollment swells in his class, held in a disused corner of the school cafeteria. When asbestos is discovered in the classrooms housing most of the elective courses, dozens of rowdy Latino students with nowhere else to go are transferred to Marschz's class. It's only a stopgap. The principal, a fulminating, flag-waving jock, tells Marschz that the school board is cutting drama from the budget. This will be Marschz's final semester-unless he can raise his own money to keep theater alive.

The arts have seldom had a less capable advocate. A buffoon beset by adversity, Marschz is so poorly paid that he must roller skate to school instead of drive, necktie flapping behind him. The crash helmet he wears comes in handy when he loses footing in traffic. His wife (a sketchy role for Catherine Keener) appears to nurse regrets over their marriage. Marschz is the sort of actor who tries to transform every banal conversation into theater. The result is neurotic melodrama when it's not unintended comedy. The tragedy of his life is that with all his enthusiasm for the art of theater, he has little to say and no great skills for saying it.

To save the drama program through increased ticket sales for the school's annual musical, Marschz pens a ludicrous sequel to Hamlet, convinced its sci-fi twists and explicit sexuality will arouse great attention. He is dead serious about his opus, involving time travel and a deus ex machina in the form of Jesus who inspires the sad sack Danish prince to embrace life and forgiveness. Hamlet 2follows a predictable if ironically introduced Hollywood plotline as Marschz overcomes the skepticism of his Latino students and opens them to the fulfilling potential of the performing arts. Naturally there is a villain in the form of the principal, who deems the production pornographic and bans it. Smelling a case for free expression, the ACLU (which Marschz mistakes for a talent agency) dispatches a humorless loudmouth lawyer to defend the playwright's right to be mediocre.

Although only a few of the jokes fall entirely flat, the biggest problem with Hamlet 2 concerns slack timing and direction. The madcap sizzle of hilarity is lacking, leaving behind a funny idea that seldom erupts into sidesplitting laughter.