Hamlet 2

As William Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing,” right?

So that’s where we’ll start, rating a Tucson high school’s performance of the musical sequel to the Bard’s masterpiece – Hamlet 2, anchored by the show-stopping and possibly damnation-inducing number “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.” (That title reminds me of an old dilemma – if I download “Jesus Christ Superstar,” am I at risk of spending an eternity in Hell?)

In terms of other recent cinematic play productions, I would place Hamlet 2 ahead of the puppet Dracula musical that closes Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which like the film itself is funnier in theory than execution.

Hamlet 2, the play, also outlaughs the history of Blaine, Missouri, found in Waiting for Guffman. Of course, that Guffman plays it unexpectedly straight is a small act of genius.

In fact, I might only prefer the school play that ends Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. I mean, they had real dynamite.

Of course the play is only the end of the movie. Before that, Hamlet 2 has enough of a split personality to walk the castle in mad, haunted indecision. The second half is to be. The first half is not to be. The story of a desperate high school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) and his attempt to save his program with a semi-pornographic extravaganza takes a while to warm its voice. When it gets there, though, it gets there.

Along with comics like Simon Pegg, Coogan is among a group of British performers trying to break into the American entertainment consciousness. Most recently, as the beleaguered director in Tropic Thunder, he met an abrupt end. I prefer him when he is dry and knowing, such as his wry turn as record producer Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, rather than camp and clueless, as here. As the flamboyant, pretentious teacher, he has early troubles finding a consistent tone. Yet he rips off some great lines, as a man committed to suffering for a vocation for which he has too little talent but too much love.

The film has a few good supporting turns, from the likes of Catherine Keener as his flaky wife and a fun Elisabeth Shue playing herself re-imagined as a Tucson nurse, gamely riffing on her slowed movie career. When asked her favorite part of acting by a student, her reply is priceless.

Unlike its namesake, Hamlet 2 is unlikely to last through the ages. But it should get you through a weekend night.

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