Jesse Locke is a writer and musician based in Vancouver. He is the co-founder of the record label We Are Time with NYC post-punk pre-teen Chandra Oppenheim, and the author of Heavy Metalloid Music, the biography of 1970s psych/proto-punk band Simply Saucer, published by Eternal Cavalier Press. Jesse currently writes for outlets including Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, and CBC Music, and plays drums for bands such as Tough Age, Big Rig, and CHANDRA. Follow him on social media at @wipeoutbeat.
Steve Coogan cracks me up like few comedians can. It’s impossible to count how many times I’ve watched my favourite clips from his blundering broadcaster Alan Partridge, playing air bass to Gary Numan or simply shouting the name “Dan!” In 2002, when Coogan played Factory Records founder Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, he opened a door to my burgeoning obsession with British post-punk. Six years later, I was primed to laugh my head off at his starring role in the high-concept comedy, Hamlet 2. Not everyone found him to be a fellow of infinite jest, but what many critics missed is that the film is surprisingly moving.
Hamlet 2 was directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming, a filmmaker best known for conjuring The Craft in 1996. The script was co-authored by Pam Brady, whose previous credits include Hot Rod and Team America World Police. Fleming returned to the subject matter of troubled teens in this 2008 comedy, while focusing on the journey of a struggling actor turned high school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona (“where dreams go to die”). At the time of its release, Hamlet 2’s champions included Roger Ebert, who described it as “an ideal showcase for the talents of Coogan.” Yet every positive review was matched with a negative one, as the film earned middling ratings and made back only half of its budget.
Members of my friend group hated Hamlet 2 in 2008, but I’ve loved it since my very first viewing. In the past 13 years, it’s replaced other comfort food comedies like Spaceballs, Wayne’s World, or Wet Hot American Summer to become the movie I throw on any time I want to feel a bit better. I could even imagine it having the same long tail trajectory as Clifford or MacGruber, outlasting negative criticism to become a cult favorite (and eventually the subject of an oral history).
So what sets Hamlet 2 apart from other mid-aughts comedies? Let’s start with Coogan’s character Dana Marschz, “a little boy from a dairy farm in Manitoba who dreams of acting but can’t do it very well.” His last name is continuously mispronounced as he earns less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Though it wasn’t written by Coogan, this role shares many of his characters’ signature traits of outsized confidence compelling them towards creative expression. The film begins with a montage of Marschz’s greatest acting achievements (a juicer infomercial, a herpes medication ad, Xena: Warrior Princess) before revealing that he’s directing a high school stage adaptation of Erin Brockovich that would make Max Fischer cringe.
Coogan is surrounded by an all-star supporting cast that includes Catherine Keener as his withering wife Brie, Amy Poehler as foul-mouthed ACLU activist Cricket Feldstein, and Elizabeth Shue as a jaded version of herself working at the Prickly Pear Fertility Clinic. The students in Marschz’s drama class are equally hilarious, with Skylar Astin delivering a cartoonish take on the spotlight-chasing character that would make him a star in Pitch Perfect several years later. Joseph Julian Soria plays his foil as the surprise talent Octavio, while Phoebe Strole’s Epiphany grapples with racism, mercifully becoming the butt of jokes that punch up at her instead of down.
Hamlet 2 rewards with repeat viewings thanks to subtle jokes like the pretentious student critic quoting Roland Barthes in his reviews. Some of the film’s funniest lines are throwaways you might not catch the first time: (“I was an extra in an Al Jazeera TV movie. I regret it now, but what a fun bunch of guys.”) (“I just wondered why in Hamlet 1 everybody has to die. It’s such a downer.”) (“Dreamer… with the fuckin’ horse!”) Yet it also includes multiple shots of Coogan’s bare butt and repeated jokes about accidentally flashing his balls in a kaftan. Unafraid to go high or low for laughs, Hamlet 2 hits you from every angle until you’re slumped in the corner like a boxer on the wrong end of a K.O.
The film climaxes with its titular play-within-the-movie, a sequel to Shakespeare’s existential tragedy that uses a time machine shaped like Yorick’s skull to get around the pesky problem of every character being dead. Snoopy, Einstein, and Hillary Clinton all make unexplained cameos, while both Hamlet and Jesus experience the epiphany of forgiving their fathers. The Grease-style musical number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” is Hamlet 2’s showstopper, a campy, over the top earworm about the son of god’s sex appeal: “Immaculate conception really makes my day/But the dude’s got lats that make me feel gay.”
Beyond its barrage of irreverent jokes, Hamlet 2 has a heart in disguise. The tip-off occurs in the play’s denouement featuring the Gay Men’s Chorus of Tucson performing a beautiful version of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” As an openly gay man, these choices by director Andrew Fleming hint at how the story can be seen as an allegory for anyone accepting themselves and finding their community in a place where they feel like an outsider. Even Skylar Astin’s Rand becoming comfortable in his role as a bi-curious Laertes has an emotional quality when you consider him to be an analogue for Marschz seeking acceptance from his own dad. It’s basically the cinematic equivalent of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” if it had more lyrics about being raped in the face.
Fleming and Coogan recently reunited for the gay romantic comedy Ideal Home, a deeply personal project based on the director’s own experiences raising a son with his husband. As Fleming explained in a 2008 interview, Hamlet 2 also draws on his real-life encounters in Tucson while promoting his previous film, Threesome: “It wasn’t hostile, but it was clear that my being gay was strange and you know, it’s a Republican state and it’s a very, very, very segregated city. The poor people live here and they’re largely Hispanic and the rich people live over there and they’re largely white.” Speaking to Collider, Fleming revealed how “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” was based on Madonna’s mid-2000s Confessions on a Dance Floor tour: “The one where she crucified herself and did all that stuff that came off as tasteless and desperate, and we thought this would be a great way to show a similar sort of desperation.”
Throughout Hamlet 2, Marschz nods to “inspirational teacher movies” like Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, or Mr. Holland’s Opus as another misplaced belief in his own abilities. This film tells the story of a ragtag group of outsiders triumphing over adversity, yet it shares much more in common with School of Rock. Now that Jack Black has earned a critical re-examining for his role as Dewey Finn showing students how to rock out with confidence, Coogan’s character surely deserves the same treatment. Dana Marschz might be an absolute weirdo, but he inspires everyone around him to be true to themselves.
(Photo Credit: Cathy Kanavy/Focus Features)