Stage dive

 

I will take the slightly naughty energy of the climactic song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” from the new film “Hamlet 2” over the shrill teen warblings of any “High School Musical” in a heartbeat.

It’s not the blasphemous blast some might expect from such a title, but it dances the line just enough to keep you riveted as to where it may go next.

This is predominantly due to the exasperated efforts of the film’s lead Steve Coogan, who throws his every last spastic muscle into his role of clueless high school drama teacher Dana Marschz. Coogan, who has yet to break big on this continent, is adored by many in his British home where his vain, tempestuous television character Alan Partridge could have easily passed for a sibling to Ricky Gervais’ immortal David Brent in the original “The Office.”

One wishes the film had as much manic manner as Coogan displays.

“Hamlet 2” is filled with devious left-field non-sequiturs, send-ups to inspirational teach films, and broad physical comedy, but these parts never gel to a whole.

Marschz’s dream of acting resulted in but a few commercial gigs (which are played in the film’s opening, echoing the same structure and eliciting the same laughs as “Tropic Thunder, which Coogan also stars). Alas, since his resume’s peak was “Frustrated Juicer User” and “Happy Herpes Sufferer,” his reach for the stars was grounded and now toils away in a teaching gig in Tuscon, Arizona.

His plays, which are based on popular films such as “Erin Brockovich,”(which would be much funnier had it not been done already in “Rushmore”) are hardly the stuff of theatrical inspiration. And when his school’s budget ax swings, the drama department is the first on the block.

Marschz meets the news with the typical “pick-yourself-up” pluck that serves as the source for so many a Hollywood drama. But Marschz is a far cry from Mr. Holland, or even a Dead Poet. So his stirring speech to save the program is less a rallying cry than it is a pitiful sob.

And speaking of pitiful, Marschz’s home life is in shambles as well, co-existing with a booze-soaked wife (Catherine Keenar) who stays pickled to purge thoughts of her sliver of a life with such a loser. His transportation needs have been reduced to roller skating to work, thanks to a prior DUI conviction, and his stage efforts are often panned by the school’s freshman critic in the school paper.
All of this seems pretty bleak, and were it not for the chipper (or oblivious) attitude of Coogan, it would appear as tragic as the film’s eponymous namesake.

But what is sorely missing in the film is any sort of development from any other character. The students are little more than stereotypes (the ultra-religious gal who falls for a bad boy, the closeted gay one, the mute chick who speaks only to deliver an inspirational monologue). The only time it dare plays with these is an amusing bit where Marschz marches to the home of one local ruffian whose parents pull him from the play. He expects them to be layabout drug addicts who don’t want their macho son singing on stage, but when he meets them, they are actually literate, well-read PhD holders who object to plays sloppy writing and preposterous storyline (which involves Hamelt, a time machine and Jesus).

Elizabeth Shue factors into the film as well, taking a good-natured shot at her own celebrity, but it hardly feels integral to the overall story.

When it comes to the final performance, which somehow manages to receive backing from the entire student body that rejects his as a clown, Marschz pulls off a show that makes the grotesqueries of Cirque du Soliel look like community theater.

But there is no emotional payoff for the students who have apparently been so transformed by this event. Sure, the music is shockingly funny (it was co-written by Pam Brady, who also co-wrote the “South Park” film), but for a film based in theater, it feels starkly un-theatrical and hollow, just a bunch of aping and mugging for the camera.

To paraphrase the Bard himself from “Hamlet,”: “Though this be madness, there is no method in’t.”

 

~ by usesoapfilm on September 1, 2008.

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