This is no Hamlet spoof if that’s what you’ve come for. “Hamlet 2” is a movie about failed artist Dana Marschz (played by the moderately-revered English comedian Steve Coogan), who has become a high school drama teacher to share his passion for theater with others. When the school district announces that drama will no longer be taught come next semester, he writes a new play, “Hamlet 2,” to save the drama department, work out his personal demons, and approach one of the greatest works in the western canon in an attempt to fix what went wrong.
Marschz finds out the hard way that being an artist is filled with horror. He thinks everyone hates him and it fills him with doubt. Marschz also faces the threat of a new desire: all of a sudden, he wants to be understood. He wants people to understand the play as his struggle to come to terms with the memory of his sexually abusive father. For Marschz, that’s what Hamlet is about, that’s how he’s read it all these years. “Hamlet 2” is his attempt to fix a tragedy. Marschz’s Hamlet will meet Jesus, rescue his mother, befriend Laertes, and forgive his father’s ghost. The only things Hamlet needs are song, therapy, and a time machine.
This play within a film within the play shows how the author is the only one interested in authorial intent. Everyone else in Tucson, Arizona—where the film takes place—wants to either politicize it, demonize it, use it as a cause, or just have fun at the theater. The actors just want to act and the lighting people just want to light. No one but Marschz cares about what the play “really means.”
And all of Marschz’s fears end up unfounded. No one really hates him for writing the play, and no one can stop him from putting it on. People like his play or don’t, and they make what they want of it. That’s all. At the end of the production, a New York Times reporter approaches Marschz to say how touched he was when Hamlet forgave his father, and Marschz, dressed as Jesus, says “What about when I forgave my father?” He’s answered with silence. You might have to be an artist to think it’s tragic, and you might have to know who Roland Barthes is to think it’s funny for screaming “the author is dead,” and that’s how the whole movie goes; you’re stuck in the middle. Comedy can have tragic elements, and tragedy can have comic ones, but even Shakespeare knew that he couldn’t have a perfect balance. While Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a couple weights on the comic side of the scale and the lion’s share on the tragic side, a film like “Hamlet 2” keeps its scale so close to the center that we’re not sure how to feel about it. Everyone leaves the cinema just kind of “meh.”
Still, “Hamlet 2” manages to sneak some genuinely good stuff in. I mean, if you bothered to actually know who Roland Barthes was, you might chuckle when a high school freshman theater critic drops his name. Elisabeth Shue plays her charming self splendidly, granted her charming actress self turn sperm bank nurse. Hmmm... And there are some good louche jokes that get laughs and a couple jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet that often suffer the same fate as the Barthes joke, enjoyed only by attentive English majors.
All of the ingredients of a horrible movie are here, too. There’s a mute who can’t talk until it really matters; an ACLU lawyer who tells jokes about Jews and the Supreme Court; a naïvely racist white girl who falls in love with a Mexican; a dumb jock; a ton of slapstick, and a brace of over-the-top teachers. But nothing works the way it’s supposed to. The slapstick is mostly ignored; the dumb jock (a brilliant David Arquette) is lovable “as long as he keeps his mouth shut;” everyone’s annoyed with the white girl’s lack of racial understanding; no one gets the Jewish jokes or cares when the mute girl speaks, and we never stop wondering if the drama teacher is tragically disturbed or comically wacky. Every cliché fails to do what we expect it to. Even when the town Christians cue up at the foot of the stage during the production to be laughed at for praying against the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” number, our laughter’s preempted when the song is decidedly pro-Jesus. “Hamlet 2” musters all of its charm from its self-destructing gags, and there isn’t much left among those charred remains. But there’s enough to deliver a fairly touching story of an artist, and a fairly biting criticism of some things we already all criticize anyway.
The true charm is that “Hamlet 2” makes you want to wonder if the film was “really saying” something. It makes you want to go back and see what the characters were “really thinking” and find out what the author “really meant.” That wears off quickly though. After all, it’s no “Hamlet 1.”