Tropic Thunder could learn a lot from Hamlet 2: how to make an actor's life relatable to anyone, how to offend with good intentions and, above all, how to make audiences laugh and feel smarter for doing so.
Anchored by Steve Coogan's unerringly comic performance, Hamlet 2 is about a teacher inspiring students nobody else cares about, a premise as old as The Blackboard Jungle and as recycled as pop bottles. The resemblances end there. Coogan plays Dana Marschz, an actor whose career highlights include a herpes medication commercial and a day as Robin Williams' stand-in on Patch Adams. Dana is unbowed in his delusion of possessing talent while banished to teaching high school drama in Tucson, Ariz.
He has only two sycophantic students, performing plays adapted from Dana's favorite movies. Erin Brockovich gets slightly less vitriolic reviews than Mississippi Burning from the school newspaper's pithy, pint-sized critic (Shea Pepe). No wonder the administration plans to phase out the arts program, which Dana will fight like Mr. Holland to the end.
Meanwhile, Dana's boozy wife (Catherine Keener) is fed up with Tucson, marriage and her husband's seven-year sobriety.
Dana needs to succeed at something. When that obviously becomes impossible, he goes creatively crazyand pens a musical, a time-traveling sequel to Hamlet featuring group sex, sodomy (both off-screen) and this movie's prime offense, a song titled Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.
Yet unlike the r-word controversy over Tropic Thunder, Rock Me, Sexy Jesus is composed and presented with real regard, however risque, for its target. That bull's-eye isn't Christianity but the hypocrisy that sometimes ensues in the name of faith. The song isn't far removed from the prayer-rockers Disney World and Universal Studios annually invite for concerts. But of course it's prejudged by those who haven't yet listened to it.
The final, brilliant 20 minutes of Hamlet 2 play like a classic episode of TV's South Park, both outrageous and wiser than those who are outraged. That's not surprising since South Park's co-writer Pam Stone has a hand in Hamlet 2's script. No side of the obscenity issue escapes ridicule, not even a brazen ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler) who intrudes with a selfish agenda.
Director Andrew Fleming juggles too many absurdities for 90 minutes of screen time. He's inclined to spoof Dangerous Minds with unruly students dumped into Dana's class, then supports his artistic folly, cutting into Elisabeth Shue gamely playing herself as a bitter acting has-been. Dana's home life over-establishes him as a lovable loser, when more scenes from Dana's play would be welcomed.
Hamlet 2 is an edgy comedy of human frailty, with a flawed hero who shares much with Shakespeare's melancholy Dane. To laugh or not to laugh is the question. With Coogan as ringmaster for this satirical circus, the answer is easy.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.