Audiences have gotten used to open-ended plots that don't tie everything up, but the refreshingly anarchic comedy Hamlet 2 features something new: a completely open-ended character. Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz (don't worry, no one in the film knows how to pronounce it either) as a man whose diverse enthusiasm keeps stretching him out like Silly Putty.
His exuberance knows no limits; too bad the same doesn't go for his talent. Coogan, a comedy star in England, is a resourceful actor who goes for broke in Hamlet 2 playing a maladroit performer.
Improbably, both Coogan and his character come out on top, whether Dana is busy proving that real men can wear caftans or attracting a sometime movie star, Elisabeth Shue, with his madcap elation and heroine-worship. Shue plays an uproarious blunt-edged version of herself; she says she retired voluntarily from acting to become a nurse, but does miss kissing all her attractive leading men.
After showing a selection of Dana's finest work in tasteless TV commercials, Hamlet 2 takes up his story when he's given up his craft to inspire Tucson high-schoolers with theater dreams. He approaches his annual galas with the intensity of Zhang Yimou staging the opening for the Olympics, even though Dana usually has a cast of two. His leading man: a reverential, sexually confused boy, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin). His leading lady: a fresh-faced, ripe young girl, gloriously named Epiphany Sellars (Phoebe Strole).
The key to Dana's character is that he has no censorship mechanism in his brain and no critical edge to his taste. He thinks he's performing an educational service when he adapts hit movies for the high school stage, such as Erin Brockovich.
His belief in theater and his ardor for performance are ludicrous and genuine. That's why, in some of the funniest scenes, he takes the words of a high school theater critic with dire seriousness and tries to learn from an undiluted pan.
Seeing the tall, thick drama teacher tower over Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe), the poker-faced, diminutive teen reviewer, is a sight gag all by itself. When Coogan's Dana starts spluttering his thanks for the boy's truth-telling, the joke takes on galactic proportions. Dana sees his students as potential stars. He just lacks the skill to form a single coherent constellation.
Yet when Sapperstein says Dana should do something original, the idea sprouts like Jack's beanstalk. Dana needs to produce a play that can accommodate an influx of tough new students and prove to the cost-cutting administration that the drama program should be saved. He comes up with a musical sequel to Shakespeare's greatest play: Hamlet 2. Or is it a prequel?
It involves a time machine that allows Hamlet to go back in time and prevent most everyone in the play from dying, including Laertes, Claudius and Ophelia. He enlists the help of none other than Jesus Christ, here more than ever a true Superstar.
As he showed in 1999's Dick, the story of two ditzy teenagers who wander clueless in and out of the Watergate scandal, Andrew Fleming, who directed Hamlet 2 and co-wrote it with Pam Brady, has a gift for the everyday absurd. He's a klutz at pratfalls but a whiz at realistic incongruities: He knows when too much grotesquerie means not enough emotion.
He surrounds Coogan with a combination of comic actors who bring the film a gnarly reality, such as Catherine Keener as Dana's bitter wife, Brie, who develops an odd and fascinating repulsion-attraction to their silent boarder (David Arquette). Fleming also sprinkles in comedians who can etch caricatures in quick-drying acid, such as Amy Poehler as Cricket Feldstein, a brassy ACLU lawyer who will defend Dana's right to put on his Hamlet 2 no matter how profane or terrible.
Fleming skewers stereotypes with the offhandedness of someone who thinks stereotypes are already comedy routines. He incinerates preconceptions of Hispanic family life and wrings convulsive laughter from the sexual tension underlying Epiphany's racism.
This director has a knack for more oblique truth-telling, too. He's found a way to make, simultaneously, an infectious, wacky comedy about the cutting of school arts programs, and a florid musical fantasy about the power of theater, even (or maybe especially) extravagantly awful theater.
Dana throws everything into his plays, from primal discord between fathers and sons to oversized sexual metaphors, and from rock and disco to Andrew Lloyd Webber operetta. So it makes sense that when it's finally produced off-campus, with the help of Cricket Feldstein and some fierce street-gang security, this giddy pop-rock potpourri connects with multiple groups on several different levels. Devout Christian girls love the "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" number. The principal realizes he had a lousy relationship with his dad, too.
Even Elisabeth Shue is stunned. She sees that, terrible or wonderful, Dana is true to his own cracked self.
Hamlet 2, the movie, is just what Dana promises the musical will be: It turns a potential tragedy inside out and leaves you laughing at an absurdly happy ending. The glory of this movie is that its quality of silliness is not strained.
Watch a preview and see more photos from Hamlet 2 at baltimoresun.com/hamlet
(Focus Features) Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, Elisabeth Shue. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Rated R for language, brief nudity and some drug content. Time 92 minutes.