September 15, 2008

What Would Shakespeare Think?

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“Sometimes something can be so bad, it becomes good again.”
Ideally, this quotation could be applied to Hamlet 2 but, unfortunately, the film failed to land many of the lofty punches it threw. Its frequent parody of cinematic and theatrical tropes often kept it closely bound to the films it was trying to lampoon rather than elevating it above them. I frequently found myself questioning what the film was trying to accomplish and — considering the frequency with which the dialogue turned on its head a culture steeped in political correctness — this is dangerous territory for a film to attempt to navigate. Without its fleeting satiric triumphs, Hamlet 2 would have been indistinguishable from many of Hollywood’s recent comedies.
The film begins with Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a failed actor working as a high school drama teacher in Tuscon, Arizona. His class consists of two devotees: an ambiguously gay student named Rand (Skylar Astin) and his counterpart, a racist holy-roller named Epiphany (Phoebe Strole). Together, they perform in Marschz’s theatrical adaptations of popular films. All is quiet in the drama department until the budget for arts education is cut and a group of students aptly described by the term “at-risk youth” join the class. Marschz fails to take lead of his new students and before long is told that the drama department is at risk of being eliminated. He then decides to write an original work that will restore faith and longevity to the drama department. The title? “Hamlet 2.” It’s premise: Jesus Christ and Hamlet use a time machine to prevent the characters in Hamlet from dying. It’s also a musical.
Not surprisingly, word about the play gets out and considerable opposition mounts, including a lawsuit, protests and any number of obstacles that would normally keep a play from being performed. Marschz, however, stubbornly pushes forward with the help of a lawyer from the ACLU (Amy Poehler) and the last-minute assistance of his rag-tag group of students. It is never revealed whether or not the drama department survives, but in the midst of all the melodrama, a subplot about Marschz’s marital turmoil finds its way into the film: His wife (Catherine Keener) wants to have a baby but the couple has trouble conceiving. Suddenly, the wife reveals she’s pregnant and, not long after, she leaves Marschz for their roommate who is (SURPRISE!) the unborn child’s father.
As a whole, the plot strays in too many directions to be anything more than a collection of poorly cobbled-together subplots. It goes without saying that in its entirety, Hamlet 2 left a lot to be desired.
The film, however, is not without its redeeming qualities. If it is said that “the devil is in the details,” then all of Hamlet 2’s most caustic (and successful) moments come in the form of well-edited shots, clever one-liners or brilliantly arranged tableaux. (That is to say that none of them last longer than 30 seconds at a time).
The scenes featuring Marschz’s plays are brilliantly executed: The first taste of Marschz’s directorial style takes the form of a dramatic cut to his theatrical re-telling of Erin Brockovich, starring his steadfast duo of drama students. The performance of “Hamlet 2”
takes the form of an all-singing, all-dancing, nose-tweaking of theatre’s worst possible (and most comical) incarnation that features an unrealistic multi-million dollar production budget.
Needless to say, the film excels in exploiting the ridiculous and the improbable. It could have pushed the envelope further in terms of absurdity, but was often bogged down by the lofty aspirations of the plot. Additionally, the film was piled heavily with cinematic tropes that at first seemed like light-hearted parodies of stale theatrical devices. As Hamlet 2 progressed and the references became increasingly entrenched in the storyline, it became harder to differentiate between what the writers were thumbing their noses at and what they seemed to be relying on to keep the film afloat. The most irritating example of this comes in the form of the “well-meaning-teacher-meets-and-reaches-out-to-troubled-youth” trope, complete with the garden variety “special case” student who (in most films) tends to be either mute, pregnant or a victim of abuse.
To simply state the point that I’m trying to make: I feel as if it is in the difference between a line from Hamlet 2’s namesake and inspiration — “Though this be madness, there be method in it” — and Marschz’s quip that, “Sometimes, you have to go a little fucking crazy to make great art.” The precise difference between Hamlet 2 and its unfulfilled potential lies in the fact that it could have done so much more if it had known when to trim its excess and let its innate (and somewhat insane) brilliance shine through.