Steve Coogan is a marvelous comic actor whose funniest work, for those who don't live in England, is tantalizingly out of reach. On British TV or in live performance he has played, for starters, an airhead talk show host, a sleazy Portuguese singer, and a drugged-out ex-roadie who now works as an exterminator.
If you've seen Coogan in the movies, it's probably been in "24 Hour Party People," as the record impresario Tony Wilson, or in Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," where he and Alfred Molina, playing actors, improvise the ultimate backstabby Hollywood encounter. He also has a small but pungent role as the movie director in "Tropic Thunder."
I had high hopes for "Hamlet 2" because it presents Coogan in his first full-scale comic role in an American movie. On paper at least, it fits him to a T.
He plays Tucson High School drama teacher Dana Marschz. (Nobody in the film, least of all Dana, can quite pronounce that surname.) Once a bad actor, he is now a bad teacher. His last production for the high school was a re-creation of "Erin Brockovich" that was soundly panned by the school's nerdy ninth-grade drama critic.
The comic twist here is that Dana is the anti-Mr. Holland, and his next opus, a musical sequel to "Hamlet," is so egregious and politically incorrect that the ACLU has to step in to fight the opposition. There have been so many movies about heroic high school teachers fighting the good fight – not only "Mr. Holland's Opus," but "Dead Poets Society" and "Freedom Writers" – that "Hamlet 2" initially comes across as a much-needed restorative. I was particularly buoyed by what Andrew Fleming, the director, said in the press notes about the film's guiding concept: "Drama teachers are always nuts."
But "Hamlet 2" is a prime example of a movie with a great concept that skids off the rails.
The problem, I think, is that Fleming and his coscreenwriter Pam Brady, a "South Park" veteran, were so infatuated with their comic premise that they neglected to do it justice. What they end up with is as soppy as the films they're satirizing. The surly transfer students that Dana casts in his production think he's a fool, but, of course, they come around by the end. The lovefest occurs right on schedule. Why is it that so many satires – "Tropic Thunder" is another recent example – lose their nerve well before the finish line? The whole point of satire is that you don't pull your punches. If Hollywood had put its imprint on Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the essay would have opened with: "Just kidding."
Coogan is best when Dana is dithering in his own fantasyland. As Robert Downey Jr.'s blackface turn in "Tropic Thunder" also demonstrated, the arrant narcissism of the theatrically challenged is always good for a laugh. In snatches, Coogan is almost up to the rarefied level of Christopher Guest's dimwit impresario in "Waiting For Guffman," still my favorite movie satire about eighth-rate amateur theater. But Coogan is so much funnier and more intense than anybody else in the movie that he wipes everybody off the screen. It's as if he's doing a solo. This wouldn't be so terrible if at least his material was first-rate, but often I got the impression he was vamping in a vacuum.
It's not exactly the height of inspiration, for example, to have Dana be infatuated by Elisabeth Shue, who shows up in the movie playing herself. The gag here is that she's thrown over her acting career for a job as a local nurse. It's not the greatest joke, and, in any event, Shue doesn't seem to be in on it. It's also not a big brain wave to finally depict the "Hamlet 2" production as some kind of harebrained miracle. The extravaganza would have been funnier if, instead of being good-bad or bad-good or so-bad-it's-good, it was just plain bad-bad.
Anybody who has ever suffered through a dreadful night at the theater – on either side of the footlights – will be able to find a few laughs in "Hamlet 2." But not infrequently the movie is as mediocre as its target. The great Steve Coogan movie has yet to be made. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity, and some drug content.)