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Alas, Poor Shakespeare, We Knew Him Well

MOVIE REVIEW
Hamlet 2 (2008)

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Cathy Kanavy/Focus Features

If this summer has been – as so many have asserted – a great one for comedies, it’s only appropriate that it comes to a close with the release of “Hamlet 2.” The best of the sturdy bunch, Andrew Fleming’s new film gets a lot right about the acting process and why some of us are driven to suffer the rigors and disappointments inherent in putting on any offbeat artistic production. Incisive in its understanding of the primacy of daddy issues in countless works of literature, and boasting a brilliant Steve Coogan performance, the movie is also great fun.

Mr. Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor moved to Tucson, Ariz. from Hollywood to lead a lackluster high-school drama program. It’s so floundering, in fact, that the school board wants it cut. To save the program, Dana writes a shocking, sensational original play. It’s the sequel of the title, which involves not only "Hamlet," but also a "sexy" Jesus, Hillary Clinton, and the Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus. The rest of the film follows the development of the play, the controversy it provokes, and the slapstick misadventures involved in putting it on.

The British comedian proves the key element here. He achieves one of the most difficult of acting feats in making a bumbling, dimwitted character seem sympathetic and, contradictorily, somehow smart. Mr. Coogan knows when to dial up the comic quirks, going over the top without ever seeming desperate, but he also generates a sense of the character’s genuine passion for performing, no matter the context or the venue. At once completely ridiculous and recognizably human, Dana as portrayed by Mr. Coogan provides a blueprint for the right way to put forth a complex comic characterization. The screenplay, by Mr. Fleming and Pam Brady, would not have anything close to the same visceral impact had they cast the part differently.

Sharp and sincere, absurdist without ever losing its grounded humanist underpinnings, that script evokes the sanctity of the artist’s age-old drive to provoke thought and discussion. Not that one should assume the film is overly prissy or philosophical: with quick cuts and brisk sound effects the filmmakers exploit pratfalls as gleefully as the Zuckers (“Airplane”). Put simply, "Hamlet 2" can be thoroughly enjoyed on multiple levels, as only the best comedies can.

HAMLET 2

Opens on Aug. 22 in the United States and on Nov. 28 in Britain.

Directed by Andrew Fleming; written by Mr. Fleming and Pam Brady; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by Jeff Freeman; music by Ralph Sall; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by Eric Eisner and Aaron Ryder; released by Focus Features (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Steve Coogan (Dana Marschz), Catherine Keener (Brie Marschz), David Arquette (Gary), Amy Poehler (Cricket Feldstein) and Elisabeth Shue (herself).

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