Sometimes you really want to grab whomever assembles trailers and beat them unrecognizable. Hamlet 2 is yet another victim of a trailer that seriously misleads you into thinking the film isn’t going to be any good.
I have no idea how this movie is being marketed in the UK, but here in the US they seem to be trying to sell it as a knockabout comedy, passing off the hugely talented Steve Coogan as a gurning, squealing, trans-Atlantic Mask-era Jim Carrey. They strung together every moment from the film that might resemble slapstick and edited others together so that it’d look like physical comedy was occurring where it really wasn’t. The trailer did this film a huge dis-service, because it really deserves better. (Or, at least, more accurate.) As a big fan of Coogan’s I was prepared to leave the theater apologizing to my friends and promising them that he’s better on television.
As it turns out, however, apologies were unnecessary. This film was shockingly good…and nothing at all like the empty-headed pratfall fest it was made out to be.
Hamlet 2 is the story of Dana Marschz (one of the film’s very few misfires is the constant mispronouncing of his last name), a failed actor turned high-school drama teacher. Coogan—as you all know—did not write this film. As such I wasn’t really sure what to expect from his portrayal of Dana. To be honest, I sort of expected a kind of middle-ground between whatever the screenwriters were aiming for and the “usual” Coogan approach to social comic awkwardness.
Interestingly—and fortunately—Dana stands completely apart from any other high-profile work Coogan has done. He finds a home inside of a character somebody else has created, and respects it as somebody else’s work even as he gives it life. The result is an enormously sympathetic portrayal that finds a gifted actor and gifted writers pulling together to bring us a very satisfying product.
The film itself follows Dana through his personal life, his professional life and his artistic life…all of which intertwine at various points and pay off fabulously at the end of the film. It’s a simple tale on its surface (down-and-out man earns respect in unlikely way) but it’s also a richly-textured exercise in storytelling. A working knowledge of Shakepeare’s original play is helpful, but by no means necessary—and you can come to some quite impressive intellectual conclusions without mentioning the actual Hamlet even once. There are dozens of themes and levels of reality at play here, and never once does it become too cluttered or clumsy. And if you ever feel like a certain plot-thread isn’t going anywhere interesting, just sit tight. Just wait.
Okay, okay, I keep pulling toward analysis, and I don’t want to do that. (More on why later.) So let me see if I can manage a simple summary of the main plot.
Dana Marschz has had only two students enrolled in his drama class for God knows how long. They are enthusiastic, but pretty ineffective. (Dana himself falls into these same classifications as well.) There are shades of Rushmore when we learn that the class adapts, strictly, popular Hollywood films for the small stage, but Hamlet 2 pulls into unique territory with merciful quickness.
Due to a lack of funding, every non-sport elective is canceled…apart from drama. Consequently the class swells to fourteen times its original size…and only Dana’s original two students are interested in learning anything. Here the film veers very close to becoming a satire of inspirational-teacher films, but it always maintains its own identity. After the Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus approaches fail him, Dana makes a hilariously brief excursion into the inspirational techniques of Dangerous Minds.
Unsurprisingly, he does not connect. This teacher is truly out of touch…we know that. But more than being out of touch with his students he is out of touch with his wife, with his life, with his craft, with reality…with everything. Dana Marschz is wonderfully, touchingly baffled by everything in the world…and yet he doesn’t even seem to realize it. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between a good play and a good film, despite the fact that he has both the vocabulary and experience one would think necessary. He never knows when his wife is joking, and later we learn that she may never have been joking at all. He sees his disinterested students as a challenge rather than a failure. Through everything, and even though he loses his temper many times throughout the film, he is optimistic. He will connect with these children if it kills him.
And connection does come, eventually…but only when Dana’s life begins to unravel in every other sense. Only when he has other disasters to distract him do his students come to see that he is a human being, just like they are. He wants them to see him as a hero, but what they really need is to see him accurately as a fragile man forever unaware of his own limitations.
The title Hamlet 2 refers to the script Dana writes for the play that will serve as the final performance of his drama class—a direct musical sequel to Shakespeare’s work, involving a time-machine, the crucifiction of Christ, and some serious daddy issues.
I’d love to—genuinely love to—put together an essay exploring the various ways themes are connected and layered in this film, but it’s probably better that I don’t. So much of it is left up to interpretation (even after the film provides a definite “conclusion”…it’s a testament to the high quality of writing that the film functions as both complete and open-ended) that I’d hesitate to instill my ideas on a fresh mind…I’d be much more interested in hearing the things other people take away from it. Also, drawing attention to certain aspects of the film will rob somebody who hasn’t seen it yet of discovering such rewards themselves.
It’s not a matter of spoiling any plot points. In fact, the audience will see all of the twists coming from miles away; you will have figured out most of this film before Dana has. But that’s part of what makes it work so well. We are already aware of the man’s tragedy. He is so far behind us in terms of understanding his situation that by the time it does register with him, we want to reach into the screen and give him a hug. When he finally comes around, all we want to do is cushion him, and protect him from his next disastrous realization. It’s good writing, and it’s great acting. Coogan never overplays it; he gets everything across in a hesitant smile, or in a blink from which he only reluctantly opens his eyes again.
The life he breathes into Dana Marschz is excellent. He manages to bring all of his comic (and tragic) sensibilities to the role without ever—ever—mining his old characters for tricks or tics. Dana’s interactions with celebrities have nothing in common with Alan Partridge’s, his temper issues are completely separate from Tommy Saxondale’s, and his misplaced lyrical confidence couldn’t be more different from Tony Ferrino’s. His portrayal is familiar only in the sense that it’s so perfectly realized.
One of the major problems I had with the second series of Extras was that it was never really made clear whether or not Andy was actually capable of producing anything better than When the Whistle Blows. Yes, yes, I know he wanted to produce something better, but the desire to produce quality television isn’t necessarily hand in hand with the ability to write it. I think we were supposed to believe Andy was capable of better, but we are never given any evidence and Extras was entirely disinterested in exploring the question…the question which, I believe, should have been the very core of the series.
In Hamlet 2 it’s obvious: Dana Marschz is incapable of producing great art. Flat out. That’s the answer. The film makes it clear: he’s almost completely devoid of talent. And yet we root for him to succeed in his final production. Why? Well, because we care about him. Because unlike somebody who will only see the play, we see him for who he is. We know he deserves happiness…and this seems to be the only thing left in his life that could conceivably give it to him. We aren’t even rooting for him to write a good play (it’s too much fun to watch the bad stuff he creates)…we’re just rooting for success. It’s a more complicated audience reaction this film is going for, and it earns it.
And yet it only gets more complicated when the play begins, and we realize how much of his personal life has made it into the script. His relationships with his wife, his students (both old and new), his employers, his critics, his community, his father, himself…it’s all in there. And, somehow, the film manages to make all of it apply (and effectively so) to the other characters in the film and to the actors in the play. Whew. It’s a hell of an achievement to pull this off quite so well. I would have been happy if the play managed to function structurally in just half as many ways as it does.
There’s so much greatness in Hamlet 2 that the worst thing I can say about it is that it isn’t a masterpiece. That’s the worst thing I can say. The movie had me laughing all the way through, without ever sacrificing my emotional investment in the characters. In fact, toward the very end, I found myself doing something the trailers could never have convinced me I’d do: I was crying.
I was crying because the film was so…damn…good. They were tears of satisfaction. (When’s the last time you cried those?)
Without wanting to spoil anything, there’s a certain scene featuring Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight prominently. It’s a song of such enormous cheese (and it contains what must easily be the most clumsy line Sir Elton ever performed in a hit song) that it only works because of how terribly it should have fit. And yet that song…that performance…managed to tie the entire film together in an urgent and respectful look back on everything that’s happened. The song matters, the people singing it matter, the scenes in the play during which it’s being performed matter, the audience reaction matters, everything in Dana’s life that led him to include that song matters, and the fact that it’s a choir of homosexual males performing it matters. It’s functioning in a half-dozen different ways while still managing to work just fine as simple and beautiful entertainment. When the scene was over I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t even believe it. It was that good.
Can I make it clear enough? This movie is brilliant. Not a masterpiece, and yet it’s a stroke of such accomplished genius that I intend to buy it on DVD and watch it over and over again until I do think it’s a masterpiece.
Steve Coogan has made no secret lately of his wanting to be recognized by a US audience. I have to say, then, that he’s made the right choice by appearing as the lead in this film. This is exactly what he needed: the kind of film that would make people turn to each other at the end and say, “What else is he in?”
I can guarantee I was the only person in that theater who knew who Steve Coogan was. At least, at first. Judging by everybody else’s reactions, they now have a concept of who he is as well. And it was clear enough that they’ll be more than happy to watch whatever it is he does next.