While Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) believes that to live as an actor is to live a dream, he has found himself where dreams go to die- Tucson, Arizona. An actor whose career highlights include a minor role on an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess and a herpes medication commercial, he now finds himself teaching drama at a local high school and mounting, with the help of his two loyal students, stage adaptations of films like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning. When a budget crunch hits the school, Dana soon finds his class on the school board’s chopping block, despite the sudden influx of students from other arts classes that have already been cancelled.
Deciding that the best way to save the drama program, and his job, is to mount an amazing production that will leave the school board no choice but to keep the program, Dana takes the advice of the school newspaper’s critic who habitually eviscerates his productions and bases the show on one of his own ideas- a sequel to one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Don’t worry about the fact that nearly everyone dies at the end of Hamlet, Dana has a device to work around that. Of course, once the school administration discovers that his play Hamlet 2 is no High School Musical – the piece includes such things as a bi-sexual curious Laertes and a musical number entitled “Rocky Me Sexy Jesus” – they move to shut things down. What they don’t count on is Dana’s adherence to the old maxim that “the show must go on.”
The screenplay, by former South Park writer Pam Brady and the film’s director Andrew Fleming covers a lot of ground, drawing inspiration from such movies as Footloose and any number of inspirational teacher films such as Dangerous Minds or Dead Poet’s Society. Dana’s love for theater and acting not only outweighs his actual talent, but also blinds him to the paucity of that talent. As played by Coogan with a goofy Dutch Boy haircut, Dana’s unbridled enthusiasm carries him through moments where other people would withdraw in mortified embarrassment. Of course, Dana has some issues that fuel his blind love of theater. At first they seem to be played for humor, they gain more poignancy through repetition until being paid off during the performance of the show. Many of the characters have defined arcs, from Dana’s wife Brie (Catherine Keener) to several of his students to a certain actress appearing as herself in the film. But the story never gets in the way of the comedy and the comedy is never forgotten for sake of the story. It is a fine balancing act that the script achieves.
But all the silliness leading up to the actual show’s performance is but a prologue to the production of Hamlet 2 itself. In an inspired but of genius, rather than make the as comedically bad as possible the movie takes the play’s outlandish concepts and plays them straightforwardly and earnestly. It is still laugh out loud funny in its ridiculousness, but it also has a heart that makes me want to see a full blown version of the show.