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Sundance darling Hamlet 2 has been dubbed by at least one critic as this year's Napoleon Dynamite; but with an R rating and dialogue like, "I feel like I've been raped in the face," the movie isn't nearly as quirky as that assessment implies. This is a good thing. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy comedy served with a side of whimsy just as much as any Juno fan; but brazenly puerile movies that lie on the more ribald end of the humor spectrum have their own undeniable charms.
There is an art to making an enjoyable lowbrow comedy, as bizarre as it may seem. It's the reason why deceptively dumb movies like Team America: World Police (2004) have achieved cult status and obscenely dumb movies like Hot Rod (2007) should never, under any circumstances be viewed and incidentally, both were scripted (at least in part) by Hamlet 2 cowriter Pam Brady. There may be a fine line between stupid and clever, but the line that separates silly from moronic is just as if not more tenuous. Brady's good name is happily on the road to recovery, though, with this over-the-top farce. To quote Polonius from Hamlet 1, "Though this be madness ... there is method in it."
All of the madness, as it were, revolves around Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), an inept but undeniably gung-ho high school drama teacher. You see, Marschz (and every consonant is pronounced in that name) is a failed actor who devotes himself to the two students in his class and the low-budget, sparsely attended stagings of recent Hollywood classics like Erin Brockovich. When the school newspaper's prepubescent, hyperarticulate drama critic gives his latest production a scathing review, Marschz is distraught, but he flirts with the idea of writing something original. It isn't until the following school year, when funding for drama is cut, that he's shocked into action. He begins working on what will become a sort of play-within-a-play a lewd and ridiculous sequel to Hamlet with a cast of characters that includes Albert Einstein, sexy Jesus, a bi-curious Laertes, and everyone else from the original Shakespearean tragedy, brought back to life via time machine.
Though the tone is overwhelmingly absurd, this is a satire. It isn't a particularly sophisticated satire, but it's effective nonetheless offering a critique of censorship and the ACLU; Amy Poehler plays a sassy, foul-mouth lawyer with no qualms about defending a high school play wherein Jesus gets a hand job. Rounding out the cast is Catherine Keener as Marschz's crass wife, David Arquette as the Marschzs' virtually silent boarder, who inexplicably follows them everywhere, and Elisabeth Shue as herself. But make no mistake, this is Coogan's show. He's a star in his native England, yet as far as American cinema is concerned, he's consistently been relegated to supporting roles. Finally he's allowed to shine here, and the movie ultimately owes its success to his performance. He falls down repeatedly in an intersection while wearing roller skates, he exposes his butt, he moonwalks on water as sexy Jesus all of it inspired. Shakespearean comedies usually end in a wedding: though no one gets married in Hamlet 2, it's a hell of a lot funnier than anything the Bard ever wrote. *
Opens Fri/22 at Bay Area theaters