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The play’s the thing — Get thee to ‘Hamlet 2’

"Hamlet 2," a spoof of high school musicals, lacks a human center, but Steve Coogan and company fire off enough comedic slings and arrows to keep you entertained.
/ Source: contributor

“Hamlet 2” has lots more in common with “Tropic Thunder” than just an August release date. Both films feature the brilliantly funny Steve Coogan as a director who’s in way over his head, and both films hit their comic targets with deadly precision, resulting in wall-to-wall laughs.

Alas, both movies share the weakness of not giving us at least one character with whom an audience can empathize, and that’s the little something extra that separates the comedy classics from the entertaining chuckle-fests. Still, there’s something to be said for a well-executed chuckle-fest, which is why both “Tropic Thunder” and this week’s “Hamlet 2” are both entertaining palliatives for the late-summertime blues.

Coogan’s “Hamlet 2” character is would-be actor Dana Marschz, whose most notable credit is a TV commercial that has him walking hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman and talking about his herpes. Stuck in Tucson, Ariz., he’s got a thankless gig as a high school drama coach — the eighth-grade theater critic for the school paper is merciless to Dana’s stage adaptation of “Erin Brockovich” — and a crumbling, childless marriage with his increasingly cynical wife Brie (Catherine Keener).

When all seems lost and he’s backed into a corner, Dana decides to conceive a play so groundbreaking and brilliant that it will save his career — and he comes up with “Hamlet 2,” in which the Danish prince uses a time machine to evade death and meet the messiah (which leads to the film’s pièce de résistance musical number, “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”).

The show’s more controversial elements frighten school administrators as well as some parents. (There’s a hilarious sequence where the young Latino lead says his father won’t let him be in the show. We expect the usual face-off with the old-world macho dad, but it turns out that papa has a PhD and just thinks that Dana’s script is crap.) But with the help of pit-bull ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) and Elisabeth Shue, playing herself as an actress who gave up Hollywood to go be a nurse in Arizona, Dana’s gonna put on his show.

The forces behind “Hamlet 2” are no strangers to smart, cutting comedy: co-writer Pam Brady wrote “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” while co-writer and director Andrew Fleming was behind such underrated gems as “Dick” and “Threesome.” But while they’ve given Coogan, Keener, Poehler, Shue and the rest of the very talented cast lots of funny things to do and say, Brady and Fleming have painted the characters with such broad, buffoonish strokes that it’s hard to have a stake in what’s happening.

“Hamlet 2” is never boring, and it certainly contains some of the heartiest laughs you’ll have at the movies this summer, but it lacks a sense of engagement that would have made it so much better. The original “Hamlet” notes that brevity is the soul of wit, but this new movie reminds us that empathy is the soul of comedy.