What can you say about “Hamlet 2” that its title doesn’t already tell you? It’s an unhinged, off-the-wall comedy that will try anything once, an uneven film in which the hits are so dead-on that the misses don’t seem to matter.
The story of a high school drama teacher who refuses to say die when his program is terminated, “Hamlet 2" was a crowd-pleaser at Sundance, where it sparked a bidding war. But it wouldn’t even begin to come to life without the off-the-charts performance of Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, a man with a mission -- and an unpronounceable name.
With credits that include “24 Hour Party People” and “Tristram Shandy,” as well as a cameo in the current “Tropic Thunder,” Coogan is a major comic presence in Britain. But he’s never had a role that allowed him to go as completely all-out as he does here as a true-believing naif with the unstoppable enthusiasm of the Energizer Bunny.
What Coogan’s Marschz believes in is acting and theater, even though he’s never been very good at either. As wackily written by Pam Brady and director Andrew Fleming, Marschz is introduced by a montage of lofty thoughts on theater (“to act is to live, to embody the dreams of man”) intercut with the man’s real-world credits, which include a bit part in “Xena: Warrior Princess” and a late-night spot for Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer.
Where do dreams go to die, the film asks? In Marschz’s case that would be West Mesa High School in Tucson, where but two students, peppy Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and sexually confused Rand (Skylar Astin), put on his school plays and the man himself lives in moral terror of student critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe), the George Jean Nathan of the ninth grade, who routinely savages his work.
Having a terminally depressed wife (Catherine Keener) and a terminally dull boarder (David Arquette) would not seem to help, but Marschz does not notice life’s little bumps, so taken is he with his calling. When his class unexpectedly fills up with unruly Latinos, he insists that “ ‘new’ and ‘different’ are two of my favorite words.” As co-writer and director, Fleming has accurately said, “We didn’t want to parody inspirational-teacher movies, we wanted to make a movie about a guy who thinks he’s living an inspirational-teacher movie.”
The one bright spot in Marschz’s life is his discovery that his favorite actress of all time, Elisabeth Shue (deftly played by Shue herself), having tired of the dark side of the business, now works as a nurse at the nearby Prickly Pear Fertility Clinic. Talk about inspirational coincidences.
All of this is merely prelude to what happens when West Mesa suddenly cuts the drama program. Determined not to go down without a fight, and encouraged first by critic Sapperstein and then by feisty ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (“Saturday Night Live’s” fine Amy Poehler), Marschz decides to go ahead with a dream project of his, a musical sequel to Hamlet, which he calls “the deuce.”
Off-and-on amusing all the way through, “Hamlet 2" picks up steam with the mounting of that show, which, involving as it does a time machine, special-effects wire work and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Tucson, is crazier than words could do justice.
More than that, for reasons that are never quite explained (how could they be?), Marschz’s play has Jesus as a pivotal character. The main production number, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” with Coogan in the title role, is really something to see. When the father of one of the stars says, “I’m simultaneously horrified and fascinated,” you’ll know just what he means.
“Hamlet 2.” Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In limited release.