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Photograph by Kathy Kanavy
DANE BY ANOTHER NAME : Steve Coogan plays a frustrated actor named Dana doing Shakespeare in 'Hamlet 2.'

Finite Jests

'Hamlet 2' mocks actors and the immortal Bard, but it's no 'Waiting for Guffman.'

By Richard von Busack

Rewatching the prime election-year comedy Used Cars (1980), I was struck again by how well director Robert Zemeckis used the forlornness of a really vanquished desert town. Filming in the outskirts of Phoenix, Zemeckis made the ambient corruption visual. There, twin used-car lots represented American political parties: the pluralistic but fatally battered "New Deal Used Cars," on its last legs; and a shiny, remorseless and greedy Republican "Roy L. Fuchs' Previously Owned Autos" directly across the street.

Since Hamlet 2 also tries to engage in the culture wars, too bad the much-hyped comedy doesn't evince that similar sense of place--or of ruthlessness. Set in Tucson but shot in New Mexico, Hamlet 2 is supposed to take place in a dull desert hellhole that's absolute death for someone without a car. The utterly inept but obsessed high school drama teacher Dana (Steve Coogan) lost his license for drunk driving; he commutes to school on roller skates, sometimes wearing a caftan to try to pamper his testicles. His wife, Brie (everyone's favorite cuckold-fantasy girl Catherine Keener), yearns to have a baby and snarls at him to do something about getting his sperm count up.

Dana's work is not going well. His decision to adapt prestige films (such as Erin Brockovich) for the high school stage draws nothing but scorn. Moreover, budget cutbacks threaten to eliminate his class.

Since he is about to lose his job anyway, Dana hatches the idea of putting on one last great musical spectacular, a sequel to Hamlet that he will write himself. The fact that the major characters end up dead in the last scene does not dissuade the teacher. Kicked off campus for this bad idea, Dana manages to get a space out near the railroad tracks. The last third of the film follows the familiar trail of the show getting on the road, despite the usual obstacles.

At last, even blasphemy can turn out to be unfunny.

But is this blasphemy? Hamlet 2's already famous musical number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," celebrates Christ for his coolness; change the terms, and it's still hymn. Director Andrew Fleming finds himself in the unenviable situation of trying to top Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler."

Moreover, Fleming doesn't build up the play within the movie. We don't really get to see enough of Hamlet 2 the play to see how it works: we only get short excerpts of Hamlet and Jesus riding together in a time machine to rescue the Dane's parents--certainly a novel theme for a play. As his name suggests, Dana himself is a Hamlet with melancholy parental issues, the reason for his stunted growth.

There's a school of thought that argues that Steve Coogan can do anything. He has the look of a matinee idol in which something went too extreme somewhere--the profile turned rodenty and gawky instead of pointed as a poniard; the long hair looks scruffy instead of romantic. Coogan could burlesque a normal puffy-pants Hamlet. But he is not the kind of actor who really could carry this entire film off and make the transition from a clueless idiot to a hero.

As a talented sketch artist trying to make this a multifaceted romp, Coogan is too eager to please.

Seeing a teacher in a middling-bad high school get the works is funny to high school students. But the students don't get it in the neck as often as the teacher does; this is a film, as they used to say, that knows what side its bread is buttered on. Dana's students, with the exception of two backward theater-arts regulars, are all supposed to be authentically cool: they're mostly stereotypical urban gangbangers.

Fleming tries to twit the ACLU by bringing in an obnoxious civil-rights lawyer, Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), to protect Dana from the wrath of the fundamentalists and the authorities. Poehler's monologues exist to give the right wing some of its own back, but they're crudely obvious. (Incidentally, the ACLU is also the whipping boy in the upcoming An American Carol, the conservative comedy due in theaters in October and in two-for-one video bins by December.)

Only one actor in this movie about acting warms things up. Elisabeth Shue plays herself. She claims that she grew sick of Hollywood and moved to Arizona to become a nurse. Shue has a charming line about what she misses the most from being a movie star: "Kissing all of those cute actors."

Otherwise Pam Brady's script (co-written with Fleming) is like outtakes from South Park, for which she has been a writer for years. Strange how easy it is to turn a landscape into a cartoon, and how difficult it is to do it the other way around.

Movie Times HAMLET 2 (R; 92 min.), directed by Andrew Fleming, written by Pam Brady and Fleming, photographed by Alexander Gruszynski and starring Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener, plays countywide.

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