The play-within-the-movie that gives Hamlet 2 its title comes off like a bizarre, twisted, campy mash-up of Shakespeare and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with big, silly musical numbers, a giant time machine and Jesus in blue jeans and a wife-beater. We get only short glimpses of the production put on by desperate drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) in a last-ditch effort to save his high school’s theater program, but it looks a lot more entertaining than the movie we actually do watch. The play’s centerpiece, a big production number called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” is catchy, well-choreographed and funny. A movie full of absurd songs that mix Broadway sensibilities with sacrilege and vulgarity would have been worthy of the advertising campaign’s comparisons to projects that co-writer Pam Brady has worked on with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Instead, Hamlet 2 is yet another take on the let’s-put-on-a-show story, mixed a bit with the inspirational-teacher genre. Faced with both the impending shutdown of arts education in his Tucson, Arizona, school district and a class suddenly full of Hispanic ruffians, Dana has to rally support for his idiosyncratic vision of a sequel to a play in which everyone dies at the end, while simultaneously getting his gang-banging students to believe in themselves and appreciate theater. That’s a tall order both for him and for the movie, and Brady and director/co-writer Andrew Fleming sidestep it entirely by not even bothering to show how the characters change their attitudes or learn anything. At one moment they’re disrespectful punks who slip acid into Dana’s iced tea, and at the next they’re gung-ho about putting on the play no matter how dedicated the hard-nosed principal is to shutting them down.
With no effort put into even the most basic plot mechanics, the movie relies on its weak jokes (plenty of slapstick, wan jabs at conformity and tame button-pushing vulgarity) and flat characters to carry it along. Coogan, a star in Britain who’s previously only had small roles in American films, does everything he can to make the movie funny, and he occasionally succeeds. His Dana is pathetic but endearing, usually oblivious to the awfulness of his art but self-aware enough to acknowledge that he lacks any acting talent whatsoever. It’s too bad that none of the other characters, including Dana’s cheating, unsupportive wife (Catherine Keener) and Elisabeth Shue as a bizarro version of herself, are nearly as interesting or multifaceted—or as funny.
If the movie had delved deeper into the surreal desperation of Dana’s life, it might have been an incisive dark comedy, but references to his failure, his impotence and his alcoholism bear little comedic fruit. Fleming effectively took on high-school cliquishness in 1996’s underrated The Craft, but years of studio fluff and TV episodes seem to have robbed him of any real satirical instincts. Fleming’s Hamlet 2 bounces along quickly and remarkably inoffensively given its deliberately edgy content, and wraps up exactly how you expect it will. It’ll never anger audiences the way that Dana Marschz’s Hamlet 2 does, but it’ll never rouse any passion in them, either.