What would you get if you were to cross the films Dangerous Minds and Waiting for Guffman? Well, add a liberal helping of High School Musical and you might end up with Hamlet 2 (though it is difficult to imagine the High School Musical drones belting out songs like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Raped in the Face” with such gusto).
The film follows the tribulations of High School Drama teacher Dana Marschz, played by the brilliant Steve Coogan. Coogan may not be a household name in North America, but if you’re not familiar with his work, do yourself a favour and locate his hilarious Alan Partridge series from British television.
His Marschz is a failed actor who has turned to teaching due to an alarming lack of talent. With the help of his class of two fawning students, he churns out school plays based on hit Hollywood films that make Rushmore’s Max Fischer look like Howard Hawks. After having a large group of tough Hispanic students dumped into his class he attempts to reinvent himself as an Inspirational Teacher in the vein of Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society. This is, of course, nonsense, since Marschz is completely inept in every way imaginable. He is what Ed Wood might have become had his passion been theater instead of film.
Things come to a head when it is announced that the Drama program is going to be cut, so Marschz comes up with a plan to save it by staging a lavish hit musical sequel to Hamlet involving time travel, surfers from the 50s, Jesus Christ, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Tucson and, inexplicably, Albert Einstein singing about being abused as a child.
The comedy is of the hit-and-miss variety, but Coogan’s performance as Marschz is the glue that holds the film together. He commits to the role from start to finish, playing it with sincerity no matter how ridiculous the character behaves. The film also features Catherine Keener at her acerbic best, the hilarious Amy Poehler, Elisabeth Shue, and a talented group of young actors playing the students.
Hamlet 2 director Andrew Fleming co-wrote the film with Pam Brady, who penned the screenplay for one of my favourite recent comedies, the underappreciated Hot Rod. She also co-wrote South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. It feels like Fleming and Brady started out trying to do an Inspirational Teacher parody and then just started tossing in every idea they came up with along the way and ran with it. The result is uneven but entertaining, with occasional lapses into sentimentality, culminating in a highly energetic and bafflingly entertaining set of musical sequences as the title show is staged.
The film is presented in an enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen format, which filled out my monitor perfectly. Most of the scenes are brightly lit with high clarity featuring vivid colours. Near the end when the film switches to the musical, we are treated to lush blacks with excellent depth and good contrast. For an indie comedy like this the print and transfer were amazingly clean with barely any flaws to be found.
The audio on the disc is presented in both English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. Sound quality overall was excellent, with outstanding clarity on the dialogue track. Sound effects were not plentiful but utilized all the speakers well. However, for most of the film the rear channels were underutilized. The musical sequences at the end could especially have benefited from more creative use of the surround channels, though what came out of the front speakers was clear and clean.
The disc includes one commentary track featuring the writing/directing team of Fleming and Brady. The track is laid back without a great deal of insight, but there is the occasional entertaining recollection and the two do seem to be enjoying themselves.
The disc also includes subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Automatic Trailers: Burn After Reading, Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Deleted Scene: The disc includes a single deleted scene. While fairly lengthy and quite funny, the movie benefits from cutting it, as it gives away certain information that would lessen the impact of later events.
Making Number 2: This is quite an entertaining behind-the-scenes featurette with lots of humorous tidbits and, oddly, more insight into the production than is provided by the director/writer commentary track.
Oscar Winner vs. High School Drama Class: A side by side comparison between the High School production of Erin Brockovich presented early in the film and the original featuring Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart. It is short but quite funny.
Sing Along With Hamlet 2: This feature presents the two major musical numbers from the play within the film, adding a helpful lyric track at the bottom of the screen. The song “Raped in the Face” welcomes the audience to follow the bouncing Einstein-head and sing along, while “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” utilizes a bouncing Jesus-head. Useful if you’ve attended Sing Along Sound of Music one too many times.
The disc is impressive for the quality of its presentation. The picture clarity, the bright colours and lush blacks along with the excellent sound make for a nice package.
I wish that it were a little more even, but overall I would recommend this film, especially to fans of Steve Coogan and anyone attracted to the subject matter. If you’re going in expecting a fast-paced yuck-fest you might be disappointed, but if you can invest in the story, it does pay off. It’s definitely worth a rental, but unless you’re in one of the two above-mentioned groups, probably not a purchase.