Hamlet 2 was one of the first -- and biggest -- sales at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, claimed by Focus Feaures for a reported $10 million. And after finally seeing it -- at a press screening added to the schedule near the close of the fest by virtue of the buzz and the biz -- I had one of those moments where one feels totally disassociated from the second half of the phrase 'show business.' Maybe it was late in the fest, and I was overloaded; maybe Hamlet 2's comedy, if I had seen it at a public screening, would have gained mass and momentum from the presence of a more mixed audience instead of my seeing it with the rag-tag remnants of the press corps who saw it Friday afternoon. Maybe Focus have bought themselves the next Little Miss Sunshine, a wacky, sprawling-cast comedy that will have a lively, lucrative life after the festival. But after watching Hamlet 2 -- a shoddy and indulgent mass of bits from other movies with a shapeless, shameless performance by British comedic actor Steve Coogan as its unfixed center -- I wasn't thinking of Little Miss Sunshine or Once or any of the other Sundance success stories of the recent past. I was thinking of Happy, Texas -- the most recent and memorable example of a big-money Sundance sale where the excitement about the film crumpled as the movie descended from the elevations of Park City.
Directed by Andrew Fleming (Dick, Nancy Drew) and co-written by Fleming and Pam Brady (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Hot Rod), Hamlet 2 revolves around Tuscon, Arizona drama teacher, Dana Marszh (Coogan). Marszh is a fairly silly man as written -- name-dropping his time on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire in a futile attempt to impress his students, staging film-to-theater productions like Erin Brockovich, oblivious to the fact his marriage to his wife Brie (Catharine Keener) is crumbling under the featherweight burden of his own meaninglessness. Coco Chanel said that one of the secrets of style was to take one thing off before you leave the house; I wish someone had applied that maxim to Coogan's performance. Dana roller-skating around Tuscon because he can't afford a car is potentially amusing; Dana roller-skating around Tuscon in a caftan -- so as to improve his fertility, as Brie wants a baby -- takes Dana from 'potentially amusing' to 'definitively over-the-top.'
Told the drama department is going to be shuttered, Dana decides to stage a big, blow-out, department-saving production of an idea he's had for a while: A musical sequel to Hamlet. "I have the first act and reams of notes in my inspiration box." But Dana's more inspired additions -- a song to 'hunky Jesus,' the presence of a time machine -- aren't just bad ideas dramatically; they bring down the wrath of the school board and the community. Dana and his students don't want to stop, though ... and their production may actually bring the community together instead of tearing it apart.
A hissy-fit prone director whose limited experience in show business helps fuel his delusions of adequacy; a big-finish production so insane it's a triumph; vaguely sacrilegious/scatological/silly songs about hot-button topics; if all of this sounds suspiciously similar to Waiting for Guffman, Rushmore and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that's because it does. The rest of the cast can't do much to shine outside of Coogan's flailing performances (although there is a nice extended joke and cameo by Elizabeth Shue that plays fairly well), and Hamlet 2 feels a little overly-enamored of its own transgressive nature: "I feel like I've been raped in the face!" gets a laugh once, but do we have to get it as an extended musical number? Does the swishy, silly male student who adores Dana have to be quite so silly and swishy? Do the Latino students who wind up in Dana's class have to be played for street-level laughs as the uptight Christian girl becomes enthralled by their culture and language? And when Amy Poehler turns up as an ALCU lawyer ready to defend Dana's production, must all her lines be written from the assumption that 'Jew' is the funniest word imaginable?
And again, maybe the real-world audience will embrace Hamlet 2; perhaps the short memory of the collective audience will help it be seen as new and delightful as opposed to tired and re-hashed. And maybe Coogan's performance, which didn't work for me, will be embraced as a go-for-broke bravura piece of comedy. Then again, as I was walking out of Hamlet 2, I asked a fellow critic and friend what he thought now that he'd seen the heavily-buzzed big sale of the festival, and his answer summed things up fairly perfectly: "$2 million a laugh."