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Dangerous minds

The creators of the wild-eyed 'Hamlet 2' had no one to please but themselves.

August 21, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Once you've made the decision to create a sequel to one of the most revered pieces of literature in the Western canon, it's clear that all bets are off.

In the new R-rated comedy "Hamlet 2," which hits theaters Friday, a hapless wannabe actor (Steve Coogan), stuck teaching high school drama, decides to write a follow-up to Shakespeare's tragedy. To get around the fact that all the main characters die in "Hamlet," his sequel includes a time machine and, well, Jesus. The play also includes such outrageously off-color musical production numbers as "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."

The audacious movie, picked up by Focus Features following its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, also includes Catherine Keener, David Arquette and Amy Poehler. In one of the film's most inspired bits of business, Elisabeth Shue plays Elisabeth Shue (in the world of the movie, she retired from acting to work as a nurse in Tucson, the same town where Coogan's character teaches).

On the day after the recent John Edwards sex scandal became national news, the film's director and co-writer Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady were in the Beverly Hilton Hotel fielding questions about what Fleming calls their "strange little seditious oddball movie." Earlier they had been doing round-table interviews in the very room where Edwards' ill-fated late-night Rielle Hunter meet-and-greet went down. Only for a movie as conspicuously out there as "Hamlet 2" does the notorious locale make a strange sort of sense.

Fleming has directed such left-field Hollywood films as the Watergate-era teen spoof "Dick," the girl-power witch flick "The Craft" and the recent big-screen "Nancy Drew." Brady's credits include co-writing "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" and "Team America: World Police."

"Hamlet 2" is at its core a wild-eyed send-up of inspirational-teacher movies while also touching on such topics as social hypocrisy and lack of arts funding in public schools. The film began with the creation of what would become Coogan's tough-to-pronounce character Dana Marschz, whom Fleming and Brady invented while in a pique over other stalled projects.

Having grown frustrated by the limitations being put on them by executives and the like, the newfound friends decided to just go for it on their own. The traditional limits of good taste would simply have to be moved aside. "We had been doing TV pilots together," said Fleming, "that's how we met each other, we worked on two pilots together. And there were so many rules, so many people saying, 'Oh, that makes us uncomfortable.' "

" 'It's too far; you'll alienate the audience,' " chimed in Brady, mimicking an overly cautious exec.

"Smoothing it out, we said, 'Let's just do this on our own,' " Fleming continued. "It's for us; it will make us laugh. So we didn't censor ourselves at all."

Coogan, who is best known for his faux television presenter Alan Partridge and who is also in the current "Tropic Thunder," holds the screen for nearly every moment of "Hamlet 2." He has long specialized in characters who are blissfully oblivious to their shortcomings, but this performance has a decidedly unexpected undercurrent of actual emotion, sometimes making it hard to know whether to laugh in derision or wince in sympathy.

"I try not to look like I'm judging the person I'm playing," Coogan said in a separate interview.

In the film, Coogan's character talks frequently of his issues with his father, and with each passing reference it becomes less funny and more genuine. When, after much struggle with his school's principal over the risque content of "Hamlet 2" -- which leads to local protests and even the legal intervention of the ACLU -- he is finally able to stage his production, and it is as cathartic as it is chaotically hilarious.

Throughout the film, it is remarkable to see the other characters respond to Marschz's flamboyant idiocy. Even his mostly uninterested students (including the dazzling up-and-comer Melonie Diaz) are eventually won over by his pluck, sincerity and dream-weaver tenacity.

"What's funny about it is how he likes to talk about his emotions in front of everybody," he said. "It doesn't matter who it is, and that's a very American thing. 'I want to talk about my molestation and all of the damage and my substance abuse,' and we just met."

"It's like the confessional Oprah culture," said Brady, "that it's OK within five minutes of meeting that I'll tell you about my rape."

"But it doesn't mean it isn't real," added Fleming.

Adding to the film's oddball confusion is the spirited meta-performance of one-time Oscar nominee Shue as herself. For the part of a once-famous actress who has turned her back on the business, Fleming and Brady had already been turned down by a number of other actresses -- some of whom were deeply offended to even be offered the part -- but Shue jumped at the chance.

"I think they were shocked that I said yes," said Shue by phone from New York.

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