United States, 2008
Directed By: Andrew Fleming
Written By: Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming
Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Shue
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content
Hamlet 2 begins with a series of cable-access commercials all starring Steve Coogan’s character, washed-up actor Dana Marschz, while Peter O’Toole, in a tone perfectly suited to a death-bed confession, waxes philosophical on the actor’s craft. It’s an odd mix, seeing Coogan grinning like a tortured Cheshire cat in a herpes ad while Lawrence of Arabia attempts his best James Lipton impersonation. Maintained the entire film, this tone (‘state of mild schizophrenia’ might be more accurate) is a risky decision that is, at the very least, admirable for eschewing the conventional Hollywood comedy equation (Will Ferrell + Random Sport = $$$$$!). Whether you’ll appreciate that decision is entirely dependent on how eccentric your sense of humor is; Hamlet 2, like Napoleon Dynamite, is a film that cannot be easily recommended – you either get it or you don’t.
Dana Marschz has seen better days, which is readily apparent from the aforementioned commercials. A drama teacher at West Mesa High in Tucson, AZ (where, Peter O’Toole tells us, “dreams go to die”), Dana has resigned himself to staging theatrical adaptations of popular films (a la Max Fischer in Rushmore) and being subsequently skewered by the high school theater critic (a la Tobias in Arrested Development). His students think he’s a joke (he is), his wife (Catherine Keener) wants a baby/hates his guts, he’s a recovering alcoholic who rollerblades to work, and the school board has decided to permanently shut down the drama department. What’s a beaten down thespian to do? Save the day by staging the sequel to Hamlet, which (obviously) features time travel and the Son of God. Duh.
Coogan’s performance is, for better or worse, the lynchpin of the entire film. It is even, dare I say it, a bit fearless, as he embraces moments and lines of pure absurdity with all the gravitas of an actor straining for Oscar gold. Dana is written like Adam Sandler but Coogan plays him like Sean Penn, and the result is either comic genius or over-the-top Gorgonzola. When Dana discovers his idol, actress Elizabeth Shue, working in a doctor’s office (she’s ‘playing’ herself), he has a fanboy meltdown that had me chuckling and/or cringing (I can’t remember which). Hamlet 2, and Coogan’s performance, straddles such a fine line that I find I cannot trust my initial reaction. When I revisit it in a year it will either be one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen or an absolute massacre.
Films that promise The Big Game or The Showdown or The Performance live or die by their finale. Much like Waiting For Guffman, the entirety of Hamlet 2 is spent building up to the titular performance, ratcheting up as much anticipation as possible (both for the movie audience and the real one). So when we finally glimpse the first musical number, does it live up to the film’s self-imposed hype?
“I’m simultaneously horrified and fascinated,” one parent says, and that sums it up perfectly. Coogan and company croon to a half-decent melody that is surprisingly charming, until they reach the chorus and simultaneously belt out, “You’ll be raped in the face.” Right. The next number, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” has all the finesse one might expect from a song thus titled, is not nearly as catchy as the creators (and marketing department) seem to think it is, and is tailor made to court controversy. Which is exactly what it is doing.
Christian groups are already calling for a boycott, claiming that Hamlet 2 mocks the name of Christ and “relegates the person of Jesus to that of a porn star.” Writer-director Andrew Fleming, along with co-writer Pam Brady (writer and producer of – shocking! – South Park), anticipated such controversy and even worked it into their script. A line of chaste Christians pray in front of the stage in protest, and one character even remarks, “We’re going to hell for doing this play.” As both an evangelical Christian and a film critic, I find myself in a unique position to respond to both the film and the controversy.
First of all, if God is who us Christians claim him to be, films like Hamlet 2 are not in the least bit surprising to him. Jesus, if nothing else, was a realist; he wasn’t the least bit shocked when his claim to be the Son of God got him crucified, and if crucifixion doesn’t rate on the “things that surprise God” list, I imagine that “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” registers somewhere between “Halloween” and “Bart Simpson.” So let’s not pretend this is something even remotely new under the sun.
Secondly, the Biblical commandment that “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” is purportedly breaking (“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”) was pointedly directed at the Israelites, and vicariously at modern day Christians. In other words, those who believe in God. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that Andrew Fleming, Pam Brady, and Steve Coogan aren’t touring the festival circuit with a Bible in one hand and a tract in the other. It’s ludicrous to demand that someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity treat it with respect, and while the Bible has a lot to say about sharing the gospel, it conspicuously has nothing to say about beating non-Christians into a respectful submission of Christ. Requiring such devotion from those who don’t even label themselves ‘Christian’ is only a few steps down the ladder from executing cartoonists who draw less-than-flattering portraits of your revered prophet.
Do you want to know what’s really offensive? Pastors who cheat on their wives and get a pass; Christians who ignore inconvenient truths like world hunger and genocide; Evangelical leaders who use their pulpits to call for the assassinations of third world dictators. Of all the things that the church could devote its time and energy towards, protesting a musical number in a film that will likely sit in the multiplexes for less than a month is not one of them.
Much of this is mitigated by the fact that the song isn’t even that offensive. Its basic point is that Jesus is awesome, that he’s ‘sexy’ (although not in a physical sense), and that he ‘rocks’ people. One of the Christian protesters in the film even exclaims halfway through, “I get it!” No, it isn’t very respectful, and yes, Focus Features is playing up the controversy angle to a somewhat disgusting degree (send in your own viral rendition of “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” to win fabulous prizes!), but is it worth the time, energy, and posterboard required to boycott the film? Not really. If he’s who I really believe him to be, God is quite a bit bigger than all of that (and if he really is put out, I’m sure he can just strike all the work prints with lightning).
Controversy aside, I return to my original statement: I really don’t know how to recommend this. Some will adore it, some will be confused, others will be painfully bored, and a small percentage will be mortally offended. I laughed quite hard (it certainly beats out Step Brothers and Pineapple Express), but a year’s distance could induce groans rather than guffaws. If your sense of humor clicks with it, however, Hamlet 2 might just be the second coming of indie comedy.