Hamlet 2: The First One Was Better

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Focus Features

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

There's nothing remarkable, or witty, or particularly engaging about Hamlet 2, a ragged comedy about a failed actor who tries to mount a science-fiction musical sequel to Shakespeare's tragedy in a Tucson, Ariz., high school. But at the movie's damp little heart there is a poignant truth: all actors' desperate neediness to win the appreciation and approval of the audience, which is anyone they meet. All of life is a war for that attention, in which the armaments are charm, beauty and menace, the battle cry is "Look at me!" and the secret weapon is the onlooker's pity.

The actor in question is Dana Marschz — his last name is nearly unpronounceable, just the first reason he has trouble getting jobs — and he is played by the English comedian Steve Coogan with the lank hair, toothy smile and blithe sweetness that recall Tiny Tim, the eccentric ukuleleist of the '60s. Coogan has been everywhere lately, starring in little movies (A Cock and Bull Story: Tristram Shandy) and guesting in bigger ones. He had a brief, explosive turn as the director in Tropic Thunder, and he's popped up in Finding Amanda, Hot Fuzz, Marie Antoinette, Night at the Museum and dozens more. Either he's much in demand or his agent has been instructed never to turn down an offer. At any rate, he's the kind of highly employable performer Dana dreams of being.

Coogan's signature character, displayed in a decade's worth of Brit comedy series, is Alan Partridge, an unctuously brutal TV host modeled on David Frost. (Eric Idle did Frost first, and better, back on Monty Python's Flying Circus.) If you've never seen Partridge, you know his type from countless American movies and TV shows: a star with a self-confidence as unbreakable as it is unjustified, and who's impervious to the world's opinion of him.

Dana, to whom Coogan gives full emotional value, is the flip side of that showbiz coin. He's lost so many auditions, been told no so many times, that his actor's ego exists only on the memory of what he once hoped to be. But that memory is strong enough to keep him going. Acting is no longer what he does; it's what he is. He's the slave of his abiding addiction for approval, despite the daily, hourly, minute-ly blows to his self-esteem.

He gets plenty of buffeting at the high school where he teaches drama. He's adored by two misfit students, the gushing Epiphany Sellars (Phoebe Strobe) and the not-yet-aware-of-his-own-gayness Rand Posin (Skylar Astin). The other kids, including a bunch of Latinos bused in from another school, treat Dana with loud contempt, and the principal is ready and eager to close down the Drama Department, i.e. Dana. His grand idea has been to stage productions of old hit movies — Erin Brockovich played by teens — which are routinely panned by the local critic, another student at the school. No one cares for him, including his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, in another of those roles that require her to do no more than laugh a lot at the hero's inadequacies).

The mechanics of Dana's despair and salvation are managed with no special grace by writers Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady, and haphazardly directed by Fleming. He's done wan remakes of The In-laws and Nancy Drew, but the film closest to Hamlet 2 was the 1999 comedy Dick, which enlisted a slew of Saturday Night Live veterans (Will Ferrell, Harry Shearer, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Breuer) in the fanciful tale of two girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who wander off from a White House tour and get entangled with President Nixon. That one sounded funnier than it was too.

A few early reviews of Hamlet 2 make it seem like a wild anarchic satire. It is nothing of the sort. It's a standard-issue parody of the inspirational-teacher movies that bloomed in the '90s (with Mr. Holland's Opus and Dangerous Minds) and show no signs of going away. Satire's aim is to cleanse by annihilating; that's what Dr. Strangelove and other black comedies of the '60s did. But genuine satire is hard to find on the big screen these days, or any day, because its strident moralist tone tends to alienate audiences. In the definition of the form by Broadway writer-director George S. Kaufman, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

Empty movie houses are no spur to getting a movie financed, so would-be satires cop out by the final reel and become the thing they started to mock. Tropic Thunder devolves from a Hollywood diatribe, in which all the participants are greedy or loony, into Rambo VII or a peppier Platoon. And Hamlet 2 turns into an MGM musical with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, where the kids put on the big show in a barn — here, a warehouse. Instead of scorched-earth satire, this is parody plain and simple, especially simple. It has no greater intent than to tease and cuddle up.

Movies today, whether comedies or dramas, are proud of having renounced the piety of old Hollywood. Yet, however strong their bite or bitter their first taste, they're afraid to let the moviegoer leave with a dark thought in his mind; they require happy endings. That's one reason the typical modern movie is no more advanced than the sentimental antiques of Hollywood's Golden Age — and why Hamlet 2 is as needy as its hero — because it wants not to be probing or profound or even witty but, above all else, to be loved.