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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 12:57 am

The play’s the thing in Hamlet 2

A plot that seems absurd on paper turns magical on film

Hamlet 2 Running time 1:32 Rated R Parkway Pointe

The trailer and print ads for Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2 focus on its ridiculous premise and sense of the absurd, both of which are taken to wonderfully humorous heights, or depths, depending on your point of view. The film is, at times, outrageous, silly and downright crude. But what makes it worthwhile is Fleming's love of the theater and the opportunity it provides for free expression and emotional catharsis for both the performers and the audience. The driving force behind the sequel to the Bard's most famous work is outlandish, but the effect it has on those who see it cannot be denied as this ribald high school musical not only allows many of its performers to come to terms with their personal demons but reminds us of the power of art itself.

To say that Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is at the end of his rope is an understatement on par with stating that the Titanic had an accident. Reduced to teaching drama in Phoenix, where all dreams go to die according to the film, his threadbare program is on the verge of being canceled. It's no wonder as its productions consist of adaptations of popular films written by Marschz, his "Erin Brockovich" being the latest debacle. Not only is he about to lose his job, but his wife's (Catherine Keener) losing interest in him, it looks like he may be impotent and they've been forced to take in a roommate (David Arquette) who may be a mute. Spurred on by the drama critic for the high school newspaper who savages all of his plays, Marschz writes his magnum opus, Hamlet 2 which involves time travel, its main character encountering Jesus Christ and taking him in as an ally and features snappy tunes like, "Raped in the Face." On paper, it's a disaster, but the misfit students in the teacher's class recognize its edgy appeal and embrace it. Not surprisingly, members of the local school board have a different reaction.

This film could have jumped the tracks at any moment, but Coogan's willingness to go to the edge keeps us engaged throughout. This comic can do silly in his sleep but he makes Marschz someone we care for by tapping into his vulnerability and his desire to express himself. Though he's a horrible writer and actor, he knows the power of artistic expression and it's his devotion to it as well as his willingness to instill it in his students that make him sympathetic. Without question, the film is one of the funniest of the year, as Marschz's trials with his students, his attempt to deal with his insecurities, and the play itself, with allusions to Flashdance,Star Wars and songs like "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" all produce rich, humorous moments. But it's Coogan's inspired lunacy that makes us laugh and his heart that makes us care.

Through the debacle that is Hamlet 2, Marschz and others are able to lay to rest painful memories from their past and move on towards living a more healthy life. This is the purpose of all art and Fleming reminds us of this with a film that pushes the boundaries of good taste but embraces the forum in which that's possible. Like the play it contains, there is more to this movie than initially meets the eye.

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