Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2

Now and then you gotta take a stand and vouch for something you believe in, and although it's getting so-so reviews I must say that 63% is way too low for one of the best comedies I've seen all year. I really enjoyed Hamlet 2. I thought it was clever and funny as hell.

The movie is about a high school drama teacher who aims to save his soon-to-be-cancelled drama program by putting on a big musical sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and as someone who has seen one or ten too many "inspiring teacher" movies in my day I absolutely loved seeing that entire subgenre and basically every single trope of it get taken down a peg. I'm not sure I would call it a parody or a satire exactly, but just a hilariously pessimistic version of the typical "inspiring teacher" story where all the elements of that genre usually played for swelling drama are played for refreshingly negative comedy.

Not negative in the same way as the violent comedy of Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder - there's very little violence to be found here - but there's a general pessimistic worldview, pronounced disgust from characters towards others, unrepentant political incorrectness, and a definite sense of Schadenfreude, as in not just "Ha ha! That character tripped!", but "Ha ha! That character's life and everything he holds dear is falling to pieces!". It took me a while to put my finger on what it reminded me of but then it hit me like a footlong dick slap to the face - the movie's tone feels just like Arrested Development! The director Andrew Fleming even directed for Arrested Development, and like that late great show we laugh at marital unhappiness, we laugh at people failing miserably at their jobs, we laugh at the general sense of absurd hopelessness, we laugh at contempt for humanity.

Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the protagonist teacher's dealings with his students. There is of course a time-honored tradition in the "inspiring teacher" subgenre from Stand and Deliver onward where a few of the teacher's students have personal crises and tragedy in their homelives and in their dealings with each other and our teacher reliably solves all of these problems one at a time. In Hamlet 2 there is racism and racial conflict among the students, one who is unsure of his sexuality, one suffering from crippling shyness, pretty much all of them seem to be underage drinkers, and so on and so forth, and each of these threads is treated as a joke and relegated to the hilariously inappropriate background without the teacher really doing anything to help any of them. It was refreshing and made me laugh my ass off.

Steve Coogan (who America probably currently knows best as the unfortunate director in Tropic Thunder) plays the lead and brings an off-kilter comedic energy to the film. He's not really a conventional leading man and that's a large part of what makes him so funny. The only other significantly recognizable faces are Catherine Keener and Amy Poehler (who both do solid, funny supporting work) and while they are largely unknowns the various aforementioned kids in the drama program acting in the in-movie production of Hamlet 2 are pretty much all hilarious. There's not a performance to criticize in the whole movie.

The one X-factor is the stage production of Hamlet 2 itself - it's built up to through the entire movie and the one risk with any "putting on a show!" movie is that the show needs to really deliver or the whole film leading up to it is rendered a pointless bust. And thankfully the ten minutes or so we finally see of Hamlet 2 at the end of the third act are hysterically irreverent, exactly as "bad" as they need to be in the context of the film, suitably epic in scope, and have some catchy-ass tunes. Far, far from a bust, it's the lynchpin that secures the film's awesomeness.

The entire movie straddles a fine line that entertained the hell out of me - it's pessimistic and negative without being hateful, it's vulgar without resorting to being obscene for cheap laughs, it's politically incorrect and sacrilegious without seeming like it's trying too hard to be "edgy." What more can I say? Please go see Hamlet 2 (or at least Netflix it later)! It's a goddamn travesty that it's made less than $5 million at the box office and it saddens me to think that might make it less likely for studios to take future chances with interesting, unorthodox comedies like this one.

3 Stars out of 5

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