There are few things more obnoxious than a satire that keeps nudging you to remind you it’s only kidding. Hamlet 2, which is like if Waiting For Guffman were played as a straight comedy instead of as a documentary, and made sure to remove anything remotely funny, panders and plays it safe to the point of absurdity. If the script had been written as a parody of pseudo-outrageous lazy satires, it might have worked, as opposed to the way it plays now, where all of the sources it parodies are pointed out (“This isn’t Dangerous Minds,” “Have you guys seen Dead Poets Society?”) to make sure the younger target audience has any clue what’s being mocked.
Steve Coogan, who was so great, well, in virtually everything, 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Tropic Thunder, even in the silly and similarly lowbrow The Parole Officer, is great in everything, except Hamlet 2. Coogan’s part, that of an idiotic failed actor and theater teacher (with a silly last name that no one can pronounce, priceless!) in a small town trying to save his department by putting on a deliberately outrageous play, could be done well if none of the actors pointed out that he was a naïve moron. But that’s all they do. And right after they make fun of him for his stupidity, he slips and falls, in strained slapstick moments that would embarrass Leslie Nielsen. Hamlet 2 has quotes around every scene as if to make sure it is clear who the butt of the joke is, constantly standing back and saying, “Do you get it? Just to make sure, we’ll repeat the joke.”
Coming from Mr. Middling, director Andrew Fleming, this isn’t much of a surprise, he’s always been a spoonfeeder of whatever obvious point he wants to get across, from Threesome to Dick to his pointless remake of The In-Laws all the way to Hamlet 2. There isn’t a joke he can’t bludgeon, like an infant trying to relay a George Carlin routine. Catherine Keener, as Coogan’s wife, playing her standard shrew role, seems to have the best idea by trying her damndest to get out of scenes as quickly as possible, simply by being unpleasant. Coogan’s character has been written to either be completely oblivious or totally self-aware depending on the needs of the scene, and his interaction with Keener straddles both, switching from line to line. Even the “shocking” satire of religious conservatism (a tame musical sequence taking Grease, mixing it with Jesus Christ, Superstar and turning it into Rock Me Sexy Jesus) has those who are supposed to be offended, either change their minds on a dime, or the script softens the blow by explaining that the message is actually kind of friendly and up-with-people, so there’s nothing to be frightened of.
This terrified tone makes even the simplest gags unclear as to their intention. When the so-called “tough” students who join Coogan’s class simply to fill a requirement are playing their boomboxes loudly and shouting at the top of their lungs at each other, is it a joke that they’re listening to Everlast’s relatively wimpy song What It’s Like? Is the idea that they’re not so tough, at least not the Hispanic gang members everyone fears, because they listen to what basically amounts to a folk song sung with a voice drenched in lung cancer? Or were those who chose the music so out-of-touch that they thought a 1998 pop hit from a former white rapper would be something that gang bangers would listen to? Maybe they can remake one of their clear favorites, Dangerous Minds, but instead of Coolio songs, the gang members could be listening to the latest U2 album. Maybe the members of Coldplay could play the gang bangers?
P.S. Waiting For Guffman is such a blueprint for Hamlet 2 that they even steal the idea of inappropriately adapting recent Hollywood blockbusters for high school stages, such as, in this case, Erin Brockovich, which isn’t even that funny, not even close to Max Fischer’s Serpico adaptation in Rushmore or Corky St. Clair’s small local theater version of Backdraft in Waiting For Guffman.
P.P.S. One of the few good jokes in Hamlet 2 is the fact that Coogan craves the acceptance of the school paper’s theater critic, who looks to be about 11. But just like with their idea of Elisabeth Shue playing herself (retired from acting, now a nurse), they keep going back to it, circling the joke and making sure you get it, even though there’s never any real variation on the initial idea.