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Hamlet 2 Not Nearly As Offensive As Advertised But Still OK

Hamlet 2
Directed by Andrew Fleming
Written by Fleming and Pam Brady
Focus, 2008

We’re in the day and age where comedies are now advertising their offensiveness, and in a way, this takes away from the shock.  Earlier this month, Tropic Thunder gleefully made known its intention to offend, but after the Apatow gang has made this an art form, it’s hard to make something truly disturbing to the intended audience.  Really, nothing has been more shocking than 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut since its release, because even though we knew it was R-rated, it was a lot more than just dropping multiple F-bombs.  After a decade of Todd Phillips, Judd Apatow, and Trey Parker/Matt Stone, what exactly is over the line anymore?

Stone/Parker collaborator Pam Brady co-wrote the script for Hamlet 2 with director Andrew Fleming, and we’ve been pelted with “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” all summer, and all the ads have been pointing to this “outrageous” subject as its calling card.  Seriously, I think this territory got beaten down with Jesus Christ Superstar nearly 40 years ago.  And the eclectic, nonsense play (for The King And I) has been put on by none other than TV’s Family Guy.  So Hamlet 2 is not nearly as offensive as it thinks it is, and this doesn’t necessarily make a great comedy anyway.  However, it is worth the watch.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is an admitted bad actor trying to teach the art of the craft at a local high school.  He has two disciples, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellars (Phoebe Strole), who dutifully perform Marschz’s movie-to-play adaptations (the latest: Erin Brockovich) and get horrible reviews from the precocious kid reviewer in the school paper.  Marschz is in a crumbling marriage to Brie (Catherine Keener), and they’ve been futilely trying to have a kid (he might be shooting blanks) while having to take in a border named Gary (David Arquette) to make ends meet.  On top of that, the school is about to cut all the art and drama classes, as reported by the chief antagonist Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell).

Marschz has to deal with a new kind of class, a bunch of Latino kids who don’t have any other art electives to choose from once the initial cuts have been made.  And they are a bit like all the other minority kids you’ve seen in the “unruly high school teens” genre, but disinterest is the only trait they really share with those of films’ past.  Heading the actors in this group are Ivonne (Be Kind Rewind’s Melonie Diaz) and the faux-gangbanger Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria).  Maschz knows there’s no way he can save drama by doing the same old crap he’s been doing, so he writes Hamlet 2, a play that on first glance could not make any less sense because everyone died at the end of William Shakespeare’s play.  But throw a time machine in and it becomes clear.  Well, not really, because you’ll hear of “Satan french-kissing the President of the United States,” and an orgy involving fictional and nonfictional characters (including Hillary Clinton).  So the play is pure nonsense.

During the course of the rehearsals, Marschz finds talent in his new class, but is still besieged by the principal and by outside groups and parents who have heard of the play’s content.  Getting into his corner is Elisabeth Shue, playing herself as a nurse who got tired of Hollywood, and ACLU rep Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), who lays down the law and does everything she can to make sure the play goes on.

As to its offensive content, it’s amusing but hardly outrageous.  It actually pulls punches and often telegraphs, or is too self-aware, when it’s trying to offend.  Take this line from Epiphany: “I’ve been praying to be more tolerant in my prayer circle but I still get nervous around ethnics.”  It’s one of those throwaway lines that tries to jab Christians and means-no-harm racism, but it’s too obvious and works too hard.  Another one comes from Feldstein later, after she introduces herself with the Jewish last name: “Oh, and if you’re wondering about my name, I married a Jew.”  Offensive is when something comes out of nowhere and slaps you in the face with its audacity.  And while I suppose someone who doesn’t watch many R-rated comedies might feel that slap, those people won’t be watching the movie.

As is, though, Steve Coogan, who might be more well-known right now for “being a bad influence on Owen Wilson” than anything, commands this movie with his expressions.  He’s always watchable and he’s in almost every scene of the movie.  So, with all of its introduction as being an end-all offensive romp, it’s really his sweet ne’er-do-well that steals the show.  He’s an innocent, a guy who constantly gets knocked down, and that’s relatable and he pulls off laughs through his station in life.

I could watch Hamlet 2 again one day, and that’s good enough praise for a movie that has gotten its marketers too wrapped-up in the edgy nature of its contents.

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