A brilliant comic performance from British actor Steve Coogan drives Andrew Fleming's (DICK, NANCY DREW) sharp Sundance crowd-pleaser about a failed actor-turned-drama teacher who tests the limits of his First Amendment rights when he attempts to mount a shocking high-school musical.
"Where do dreams go to die?" asks our narrator (either an uncredited Jeremy Irons or Coogan himself, who we later find out does a spot-on Irons impersonation). In this case, the dreams of would-be dramaturge Dana Marschz (Coogan) wound up slowly expiring in the heat of the Tuscon, Arizona, sun. After a promising start appearing in infomercials for Jack LaLanne juicers and herpes medication commercials -- not to mention his double work standing in for Robin Williams in PATCH ADAMS -- Dana is now heading the drama club at Tuscon's West Mesa High and making so little money doing it that he and his sour, cynical wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), have recently taken in a boarder (David Arquette). With only two marginally talented but adoring students (Phoebe Strole, Skylar Astin) under his tutelage, Dana has no choice but to stage his own ambitious adaptations of Hollywood hits (MISSISSIPPI BURNING, ERIN BROCKIVICH) as two-character dramas that are routinely trashed by Dana's arch nemesis: Noah Saperstein (Shea Pepe), Mesa West's 90-pound theater critic. The drama club gets a influx of new blood after the school board cuts funding for most afterschool activities and the cafeteria where the club meets is suddenly crowded with 28 rowdy new members -- many of them Latinos from Tuscon's poorer neighborhoods -- who don't care about the Bard or the boards and just need a place to hang out. Taking a page from Michelle Pfeiffer in DANGEROUS MINDS, Dana tries to inspire them with his own love of the theater, but he only succeeds in accidentally sending one girl to the hospital and antagonizing the apparent ringleader, Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria). Just when it looks like Dana has lost control of his beloved drama club, Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) tells him the drama budget has also been slashed, and that this term will be the club's last. Determined to keep this last, sad dream alive, Dana brainstorms a way to raise the necessary funds when Noah Saperstein, of all people, suggests he try mounting something people might actually want to see, perhaps an original work not based on a hit movie. Dana has been working on a little side-project he calls "Hamlet 2" which turns out be exactly what it sounds like: a sequel to what's arguably the greatest play ever written. And it's a musical. Featuring Jesus. And a time machine. Reinvigorated, Dana finishes the book and the music and casts the play with his new students. His excitement is infectious and it soon looks as if Dana might have his first hit on his hands -- until word gets out that Mesa West's next play will be the most offensive and artistically questionable production since Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom mounted "Springtime for Hitler" in THE PRODUCERS.
The idea of a sequel to Hamlet being the most egregious lapse in artistic taste is funny in itself, but after all the buildup what we actually see of "Hamlet 2" is a bit of a letdown: It's hardly as offensive as it might have been (the number "Raped in the Face" notwithstanding) and the show's controversial centerpiece "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" wouldn't sound out of place in Little Shop of Horrors. Still, it's a lot of fun, thanks to Coogan and a strong supporting cast that includes Amy Poehler as an ACLU lawyer with a chip on her shoulder and Elizbeth Shue good-naturedly playing herself: An Oscar-winning actress who turned her back on Hollywood just as Hollywood was turning its back on her. leave a comment --Ken Fox