“Dead Poets Society,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” all “great” movies about “great” teachers inspiring their students to achieve great things — all movies referenced lovingly by Steve Coogan’s “inspiring” teacher in “Hamlet 2.” All are slandered mercilessly in this demented profanity of a comedy from “South Park” writer Pam Brady.
“Hamlet 2” doesn’t fall “trippingly” off the tongue. A leaden third act almost kills it. But “the play’s the thing” in this spoof of “inspiring” teacher films, this satire of Red State attitudes toward the arts.
The brilliant Brit-comic Coogan pulls out all the stops and drops all the trousers as Dana Marschz, a frustrated never-was whom we meet in a montage of TV herpes commercials and “Xena” bit parts in the film’s introduction. Dana has moved to Tucson, “where dreams go to die,” intones the master thespian narrator (Jeremy Irons).
Dana is another version of Corky in “Waiting for Guffman,” the small-time THEA-turr director who turns hit movies (“Erin Brockovich,” “Mississippi Burning”) into “events” at West Mesa High, suffering the slings and arrows of a lisping 15-year-old theater critic.
Cutbacks have brought more kids into his drama program, taught in the combo theater-and-cafeteria (Snackatorium). But just as he’s about to turn this wellspring of new “ethnic” talent loose on his dream play, a deeply personal, deeply misguided time-travel sequel to “Hamlet,” the school board cuts drama.
His wife (Catherine Keener) wants a baby, hates having a roommate (David Arquette) and is not convinced of Dana’s genius.
“I seriously, seriously wish you’d start drinking again.”
And the kids, save for the whitebread Dana groupies (Phoebe Strole, Skylar Astin), aren’t exactly down with the whole project. Dana’s play is awful, in an edgy way. He brings in Einstein, and then Jesus — “Sexy Jesus.” He writes tunes, “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.”
That draws the ire of the school board, lets the community show its intolerant side and catches the interest of a prickly ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler, scary as ever).
Will art transform the kids? Will the play change Tucson? Will Dana finally have his moment in the spotlight? Will the show go on?
Director Andrew Fleming did the recent Nancy Drew adaptation, and he’s an odd choice for a farce Judd Apatow might embrace. Fleming has a hard time keeping up. Coogan’s Dana imitates scenes from his favorite “inspiring teacher” movies to try and reach the kids, and injures them. He composes inappropriate tunes, even in the lobby of the Prickly Pear Fertility Clinic.
Elisabeth Shue shows up, playing Elisabeth Shue, a nurse at that clinic. Shue says she has given up the acting dream, but Dana inspires her.
There are so many hilarious, blasphemous, politically incorrect bits here that Fleming seems at a loss as to how to mold this into the breathless romp it’s supposed to be. This could have been “Pineapple Express” with heart, a live-action “South Park”-style send-up.
But what we get is funny enough for anybody who knows a Mr. Marschz.
And it’s a tour de force for Coogan, who hurls himself at Dana as if he knew the cultural wasteland of American suburbia firsthand, and (comically) wept over his fate, trapped in a world he’ll never be talented enough to escape.