Universal // 2008 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // January 15th, 2009
One high school drama teacher is about to make a huge number 2.
The rule of thumb is that sequels are usually not as good as the original. I say "usually" because there have been a few exceptions in the past: The Dark Knight is better than Batman Begins. Godfather II is better than its predecessor. Heck, I kind of enjoyed Weekend at Bernie's 2 more than the original.
But what about the sequel to William Shakespeare's seminal work, Hamlet? How do you make a sequel to a story that ended with all the main characters dying? Don't worry; Andrew Fleming, Pam Brady, and Steve Coogan figured out how...and best of all, if you've never seen the first one, it's likely you'll still enjoy Hamlet 2.
Dana Marschz was never really a successful actor (his breadth of work consists of infomercials and herpes ads); he's not really that great of a drama teacher, either. But when the Tucson, AZ school system decides to stop funding his drama class, Marschz sets out to make a musical so grand that it will save the theater department. He chooses to write a sequel to Hamlet.
It was always annoying to come across a teachers who felt it was their duty to inspire every student in some magical Hollywood moment (usually because they grew up watching movies like Dead Poet's Society). In Hamlet 2, Dana Marschz is that teacher -- to the extreme. This struggling actor-turned-teacher looks for every chance he can to make a difference in a young kid's life. The film is both a parody and a legit "inspirational teacher" movie. That's so meta.
The humor in Hamlet 2 hinges on whether or not you enjoy Steve Coogan. He's wildly popular over in the UK, but has only begun to really make a splash here (he was also in last year's Tropic Thunder). Coogan's not just another pants-less funny man (although he is pants-less a lot in the movie, oddly), he's got some acting skills to boot. His characterization of Marschz is as layered and complex as it is completely stupid and neurotic: Marschz yearns to inspire kids, but he's also a recovering alcoholic with deep-rooted issues from his childhood; he's married to an ex-pot dealer (Catherine Keener, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and can't seem to produce off-spring; and his understanding of theater is limited to adapting hit movies for the stage. It's largely Coogan that makes this film work.
The movie also benefits from the curiosity surrounding the actual Hamlet 2 production. Like all inspirational teacher flicks, the students and the teacher must learn from each other, enduring plenty of obstacles and hardships, before reaching that final, triumphant, performance. Here, the play gets barred from the school and has to be performed in an abandoned train shed. The ACLU even has to be called in (they're hilariously represented by Amy Poehler) to make sure that the kids' parents don't shut things down. In the end, it's all for this hodge-podge of a play that involves time travel, Jesus, lightsaber battles, and plenty of wire work. The play is by far the funniest part of the film, and the payoff is worth the wait (especially for the movie's memorable single, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus").
For as humorous as the play is, the movie can be a little overbearing at times. Certain scenes feel crude just for the heck of it, and the whole subplot between Dana and his wife just added dramatic chaos without any real payoff (like the film's initial narration, the subplot just dissolves somewhere in the second act). Then there's the subplot involving the 13 year-old drama critic which was brilliant but also evaporated before the final act. Hamlet 2 may be a little too unfocused, but only in retrospect. While you're watching it, chances are you'll be too amused to notice.
Hamlet 2 looks about as good as it can in this standard def release. The movie is especially colorful during the final production scene, and the picture is bright and sharp. The same goes for the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track, which really highlights the musical numbers (gotta love that Elton John song). The film may have been independently financed, but the production values are as high as any big studio comedy.
One thing I respect about this release (and I may regret saying this if they double-dip later) is that it's not claiming to be an unrated director's cut that's "too rocking and sexy for theaters." Instead there is a decent selection of special features, including one deleted scene, that present the movie as-is without unnecessary changes. That deleted scene, by the way, would have altered the whole context of the wife-and-Gary subplot, so it was probably wise to leave it out. Making Number 2 is a standard 15-minute making-of video that details a little bit of what went into the film. It features some funny interviews with most of the cast, but overall doesn't get in to very much. Also on the disc are a few cute extras, like sing-a-longs for the two original songs in the movie and a comparison of the film's high school production of Erin Brockovich with scenes from the actual film.
The commentary track on the DVD, featuring director/co-writer Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady, is one of the funniest tracks I've heard in a while. Their dry humor, and constant insistence on pointing out incongruities in the film, is a lot of fun. If you enjoyed the movie, you'll definitely find a lot to laugh at here as well. And I guess since I listened to the entire commentary track I'm now their hero...because they clearly state they don't expect anyone to stick with them the entire way through.
Hamlet 2 is a very funny, overly absurd parody of those revered inspirational teacher movies. It has arbitrary act breaks, random narration, and enough vulgarity and Steve-Coogan-butt to last you all year. It's not perfect by any means, but it's also not really trying to be. Taken for what it is, Hamlet 2 is a good time. If you liked Team America and South Park, you'll probably like this, too.
It helps that the special features, especially the commentary track, make this DVD a must-own for fans of the film.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene