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Dana Marschz is a bad actor. No, he's a very bad actor. And he's not much of a writer or director either. But he passionately loves drama and just can't help following his theatrical dream—even if it's as a part-time teacher at a one-bus Arizona high school. After a dismal career of bit parts and herpes cream commercials, Dana is now rewriting movies as plays and putting them on West Mesa High's tiny stage.
Much to the director's chagrin, though, the school's ninth-grade drama critic reports that his efforts are still pretty dismal. The school board agrees and decides to abandon the program. At the end of the semester, Dana's dream will be officially dead. But he figures that if he has to go, he'll go out with a bang. So he sits down to write Hamlet 2. His final production. His heart's musical passion. His grand opus.
The ninth-grade critic, however, admits that this one might just be so bad that it works. So Dana gathers together his posse of unruly students and tries to get them enthused. It's an uphill battle. Not only are they lukewarm about even stepping up on the stage, but the atrocious script is filled with time-machine flashbacks, blasphemous interludes with Jesus and group sex with Hillary Clinton.
[Note to my editor: Make sure you put our standard warning at the top of this review telling readers it wouldn't be wise for kids to read it—much less watch the film that it's about.]
When the school principal gets wind of some of the atrocious content in the script and shuts the production down, the students get interested. (Of course.) And when the school board kicks the director out of school, they get passionate. (Duh!) The kids decide to make this thing their opus. They'll find a venue. They'll beg, borrow and steal to stage the show.
The community protests. The ACLU gets involved. The news channels flock. But, since there's really no justice left in the entertainment world, the show does go on.
Dana earnestly loves everything about acting and drama, never mind that he's so bad at it. And he also cares about transmitting his artistic passion to his students. Dreadful as it is, the musical is a rallying point for the students in Dana's acting class. With time, it draws them together like a family and they disregard their differences and prejudices.
A character meant to represent Jesus shows up in Dana's musical in less-than-scriptural and downright offensive situations. During a song titled "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" he's dressed in a tank top while surfing without a surfboard. Kids in the chorus coo over his attractiveness and a group of boys sing that his great abs "make me feel gay." Another scene finds Jesus giving good advice to Hamlet. He then says he needs to get back because, "If my father finds out what I've been up to, he's gonna crucify me."
During some of the "Jesus" segments, the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus sings "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." And the musical ends with Jesus suspended above the heads of the crowd saying, "I forgive you father, I forgive you."
A group of Christian girls, with Bibles in hand, move up near the stage to protest the musical, calling it blasphemy. Then, abruptly, during a Jesus/Satan scene, one of the girls cries out, "I totally get it now. Jesus kicks Satan's a--!"
Epiphany, one of the students, is identified as a Christian. When confronted with a group of Latinos, she says, "In my prayer circle I've been praying for more understanding, but I get anxious around ethnics." Later, she's labeled a racist for making racially tinged statements. Some time later, she starts acting and speaking like a gangbanger stereotype.
During a lightning storm, Dana believes that the flashes are a sign from God.
Distasteful sexuality is spread on pretty thickly, from rude jokes to running sight gags. Dana bares his backside in several scenes. While laboring over his script, for example, he turns and walks away from the camera, revealing that he's naked from the waist down. Dana and his wife are trying to get pregnant and she talks graphically about his genitalia. Wearing a kaftan, he kicks his leg up in the air. Students' reactions to the kick let us know that he isn't wearing underwear. He also walks around in his underwear. Several of the high school girls wear outfits that are low-cut. One leans in toward the camera, revealing over-spilling cleavage.
A teen has explicit images of women with bare breasts painted on the hood of his car. Epiphany kisses a boy and straddles him while on a stage prop. Dana and actress Elisabeth Shue (who plays herself) kiss open-mouthed, waggling their tongues together. Dana's wife, Brie, admits to having an affair with their live-in boarder and that she's pregnant with his child. Dana makes a vulgar comment about alcohol leading to encounters with cross-dressers. A student makes up a name for himself that alludes to oral sex.
Another student, Rand, gets angry when Dana implies that he's gay. And when he asks the school principal to take Dana down, his words are arranged in a sexually provocative manner. Later, Rand tells Dana that he's been going to counseling and has come to grips with his homosexuality. Dana congratulates him. Onstage, Rand appears as a gay cowboy. One musical number is all about being "raped in the face." The school principal admits to being molested as a child.
Slapstick tumbles rule the day. Dana has a student punch him in the stomach, and he slams his fingers in a door jam. The teacher also falls repeatedly and runs into vehicles while skating around town. (He lost his driver's license in a DUI violation.) Feeling depressed, Dana mimes wrapping his lips around a gun and pulling the trigger. A stranger hits Dana with his vehicle's open door.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 20 f-words and a dozen s-words. The tally nudges up against 75 when you add "d--n," "b--ch," "b--tard," "h---" and "a--." Harsh slang for male and female body parts is also repeatedly in evidence. God's and Jesus' names are abused.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dana tells his students that he has an alcoholic background and doesn't drink. They proceed to spike his tea with acid, prompting crazy antics. He wakes the next morning half-naked in an abandoned lot. But that doesn't stop him from later getting drunk on peach schnapps and staggering to the liquor store to buy a bottle of grain alcohol. He's so sloshed he falls to the ground. Teens drink beer and margaritas. Brie downs a king-sized margarita and says, "God, I'm getting hammered."
Brie also says that she'll go back to "dealing pot" if it will help bring in a little money. During the musical's performance an audience member smokes marijuana and is obviously stoned. A student reports that his buddy's meth lab burned down.
Other Negative Elements
When Dana wonders how they'll raise the money to continue the drama program, the students suggest knocking over a 7-Eleven or selling guns on the street. Epiphany says she stole a van full of TVs.
Worse than that by far is the fact that Dana, a teacher, asks his underage students to perform lewd and profane material for their high school production, much of which we just hear about and don't actually see. Two examples: Satan french kisses the president of the United States, and Hamlet's Gertrude dispenses sexual favors. When the community objects, an ACLU lawyer sues for the teen group's free speech rights.
Hamlet 2 is a member of that new breed of comedies that goes as far out of its way as cinematographically possible to try to shock you with R-rated, outlandish absurdity in hopes of generating a few laughs and a few bucks at the box office. It's perfectly content to veer from discussions about the effect of tight clothing on testicular sperm count to showing a stoned teacher in a field with his bare buttocks in the air. And it gives nary a thought to the appropriateness of showcasing kids (male and female) singing a song about being turned on by Jesus' "hot bod."
So as much as Hamlet 2 wants to give us a comic commentary on what it considers to be rigid heartland mores, it never really makes it past being a profane hodgepodge of uneven, gag-inducing gags.
"I was nervous that people might take it in the wrong spirit and be offended by it," the film's star, Steve Coogan, said about singing "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." "I do think that any comedy that is interesting has got to take some risks. But the way that it's conceptualized in the movie is so generous."
I'm not sure what kind of generosity Coogan is referring to. It's certainly not the kind you're likely to find at, say, a Thanksgiving celebration at your local church's soup kitchen ministry. Jesus' appearances in Dana's musical—in combination with the film's other jabs at Christianity that include a youth group-attending racist—is anything but generous. Unless, of course, he means it's generous in the amount of cynical sacrilege it manages to slather on.
"In my contract, I insist on being able to take my trousers off because I think it enhances the narrative," Coogan joked in the same interview. As you may have managed to infer from what you've already read in this review, Hamlet 2 is abundantly "generous" in that area, as well. I say, Enough of the giving already.
A postscript: The issue of high school students performing questionable musicals isn't restricted to this movie, nor is the suggestion of them always rebuffed by school administrators as Dana Marschz's Hamlet 2 is. Time reports that Spring 2008 saw West Aurora High School in Illinois staging "the nation's first licensed high school edition of Rent." The May article noted that "though the script had been pruned of most of the roughest material, this is still a musical in which most of the characters are either on drugs, suffering from AIDS, or having sex with members of their own sex." Other extreme fare, including Urinetown and Sweeny Todd, are increasingly getting high school stage time. "There's a sense of we want to do something new and edgy," says Jeff Knoedler of Newton South High School in Massachusetts. "There's only so many times you can trot out Oklahoma! Our kids are doing musicals starting at camp since the fifth grade. They've already been in Fiddler on the Roof twice." It's fair to ask, then, how far away we are from the likes of Hamlet 2.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz; Catherine Keener as Brie Marschz; Joseph Julian Soria as Octavio; Skylar Astin as Rand Posin; Phoebe Strole as Epiphany Sellars; Elisabeth Shue as Herself