An inept drama teacher revises the bard’s classic to make the plot rosier in “Hamlet 2,” a comedy with a terrific premise, an uneven execution of it and enough freshness and spirit in the quirk department to place the sum total in winning terrain.
The film’s a mildly amusing, distinctive variation on the inspirational-teacher and let’s-stage-a-show formulas — agreeable, but not the sparkler that its ingredients might have produced.
Andrew Fleming, the movie’s director and co-writer, tends to make either mainstream films with a nutty tinge (“Nancy Drew”) or alternative fare that’s a bit too conventional (“Dick”). The latter’s the case with this Tucson, Ariz.-set Sundance hit.
Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a high school drama teacher with a dissatisfied wife (Catherine Keener), an unpleasant boarder (David Arquette) and a class consisting of two spoiled racist students (Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole).
His awful school productions, based on his favorite movies, are scathingly panned by the ninth-grade drama critic. His department, he learns, is slated for the budget ax.
Desperate to prove his worth, Dana writes a musical extravaganza — a sequel to “Hamlet,” which needs sweetening, he says, because Shakespeare wrote a downer.
Suggesting “Back to the Future” meets “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the spectacle features talented Hispanic transfer students and the untalented Dana performing a number called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” The risque material offends parents and prompts a cease-and-desist order. A First Amendment battle, waged by Dana and his students, ensues.
Worthy moments certainly exist. Dana’s preteacher life as a failed actor makes for a funny opening passage. The adolescent drama critic never gets tiresome. The play-within-a-play components — a time machine, a gay men’s chorus, Dana walking on water — are memorable.
But for every sparkling bit or two, a flat gag occurs (the unpronounceability of Dana’s surname particularly clunks), and in terms of reaping laughs from bad theater, “Waiting for Guffman” and “The Producers” are superior.
For all their celebration of offbeat spirit, Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady take their story into predictable territory, complete with too-sunny closure.
As for Coogan, the British actor, whose best big-screen work has involved non-Hollywood director Michael Winterbottom, doesn’t supply the center-stage magnetism that this story demands. But by making his imbecilic character embraceable, he enables the movie to stay afloat.
The able supporting cast, which, along with Keener, includes Amy Poehler as a firebrand American Civil Liberties Union attorney and Elisabeth Shue as herself, needs sharper material.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler
Written by: Andrew Fleming, Pam Brady
Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes