Our introduction to the art of thespian-turned-drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is via his high-school stage adaptation of Erin Brockovich, and after a reference to last year’s production of Mississippi Burning, Dana sounds like a rogue Max Fischer Player. Like Max, he rallies to save a canceled class: when West Mesa High’s drama course gets cut, he fights back with an original work, a sequel to Hamlet. Dana may be a failed actor, but his definition of “original” carries a hint of Hollywood.
The movie itself is surprisingly un-Hollywood, at least compared to its slick trailers. Director Andrew Fleming knows his way around sight gags and cutaways, but Hamlet 2 still moves like a ramshackle indie comedy — which it is, of course, albeit one with a lot of studio-bred talent. I’ve become so accustomed to Fleming releasing murmurs of wit into chirpy surroundings (Dick, Nancy Drew) that his involvement with a wild, loud script cowritten by South Park’s Pam Brady is almost disconcerting in its directness. For a while, Brady’s swear-heavy, screw-everyone brand of humor seems to win out; the movie is funny, but too nonchalant to satirize theatrical ambition, uptight administrators, or anything else.
But eventually, in a move telegraphed early and then dropped for a bit, Hamlet 2 becomes a sly parody of inspirational teacher pictures, particularly their solipsistic sense of healing. Dana stages his opus as a sort of massive-scale therapy for himself; the kids are pretty much all right from the start. None of this would work without Coogan, whose performance encompasses slapstick, camp, deadpan naiveté and neurotic outbursts. It might sound familiar, but Coogan makes Dana himself an original work.