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Review: Something is rotten in 'Hamlet 2'

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN.com's Tom Charity: "Hamlet 2" doesn't measure up to star Steve Coogan
  • Film wants to be outrageously funny but misses much of the "funny"
  • However, big musical number "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" does do the job
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- "Hamlet 2." Are you laughing yet?

Steve Coogan, in white shirt, gives his all in the big musical scene from "Hamlet 2."

You should be, because the jokes don't get any better than the title.

A little movie that's getting a big push from Focus (which paid a princely $10 million to pick it up at Sundance), "Hamlet 2" is not the sequel to the 1990 Mel Gibson (in)action flick we've all been waiting for but a spotty comedy about a failed actor and failing high school drama teacher who fancies himself a playwright. Needless to say, he is alone in this opinion.

I don't know whether "South Park" scribe Pam Brady or "Dick" director Andrew Fleming (who shares a screenplay credit with her) conceived this scenario as a vehicle for brilliant British comic actor Steve Coogan, but that's the way it's worked out. Indeed, sometimes "Hamlet 2" feels like an overpopulated one-man show. But the material doesn't measure up to Coogan's capabilities.

Dana Marschz is a recognizable Coogan type: sexually ambiguous, deluded, a dolt with artistic ambitions far, far in advance of his talent. (Coogan's played similar figures before, notably in his TV series starring the excruciatingly narcissistic borderline celebrity Alan Partridge.) Snippets from his staging of "Erin Brockovich" leave no room for doubt on that score. Even the 10th-grade critic on the school paper is scathing.

Coogan is generally a bit of a cold fish, but at least Marschz has sincerity on his side. He's still nursing daddy issues and is genuinely shocked when his wife (an underused but characteristically tart Catherine Keener) leaves him, even if we're not.

Like Alan Partridge, he's also a suck-up to celebrity. In one neat sequence, he goes ga-ga over actress Elisabeth Shue, who politely explains she's quit the business to become a nurse. He begs her to come and talk to his students, although she's convinced they won't know who she is. (They don't.)

The movie shapes up as if it means to parody the inspirational teacher school of schmaltz: Marschz turns to "Dangerous Minds" and "Dead Poets Society" as he tries to instill a love of drama in a class of unimpressed Latinos. But Fleming seems to have gotten bored with this idea, which leaves some gaping plot holes.

Instead, Marschz suddenly flips forward to envisage a show so incongruous it becomes a First Amendment test case for a civil rights lawyer (Amy Poehler). "Hamlet 2" is that show, in which the gloomy Dane ends up in a time machine, dropping in on George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Albert Einstein and Jesus Christ.

It doesn't make much sense that this travesty is staged with breathtaking razzamatazz (did Dana suddenly become a terrific director after all?), but there's no question that the 15-minute spectacular is the movie's highlight. The astonishing song-and-dance number "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" occupies prime position and makes a calculated bid for "Springtime for Hitler" status, though "Raped in the Face" is the real jaw-dropper.

Some of the show's rude energy might have been welcome earlier on. (Indeed, maybe the whole film should have been done as a musical.) But for all Coogan's tireless efforts, "Hamlet 2" is palpably hit and miss. It simply doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.

Focus must be hoping it will prove to be a commercial breakthrough for the actor, and coming off his cruelly abbreviated turn in "Tropic Thunder," the timing may be right. But, in general, "Hamlet 2" lets him down.

"Hamlet 2" is rated R and runs 92 minutes.

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