Steve Coogan has created, since the mid 1990s, some of the most inedible comic mischiefs in British television. From the unctuous Alan Partridge, a passive aggressive, Abba-obsessed chat show host who dangles on a tightrope between obsequiousness and open loathing for his guests to Tommy Saxondale, a former classic-rock band roadie turned grimaced exterminator who constantly spits exasperated vitriol through gritted teeth, he has become a foremost practitioner of cringe comedy.
Like John Cleese with Basil Fawlty and Ricky Gervais with David Brent, Coogan has the ability to make nutters connectible, substantial and if not likable, then, at least, not rooted against. However, his movie career, so far, has failed to furnish him with a signature comic persona to compare to his TV titans. It’s not to say that he hasn’t showcased stellar performances as a film actor. He delivered a confident portrayal of music impresario Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,“ offered a sharply entertaining turn as a tart-tongued actor in Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and exuded laid back poignancy teamed with Alfred Molina in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.”
But these portrayals haven’t required the comic largesse he possesses. From such a captivating comedian who is a masterful mimic as well — instead of another Sean Connery, he delivers a pitch-perfect Roger Moore — we await a riveting big screen presence, a task, so far, clearly beyond the grasp of his Hollywood ventures as well. In these films, it is a bleak resume of generally unremarkable parts such as Phileas Fogg in the unpleasant and thoroughly unnecessary remake of “Around the World in 80 Days,” Octavius in the underwhelming “Night at the Museum” and as the ill-fated but unmemorable director in “Tropic Thunder.“ In his stateside ventures, Coogan appears neutered; he’s cast in parts hardly requiring his specific, formidable talent.
So with the strong buzz emanating from the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year for “Hamlet 2,” his role as Dana Marschz, a forlorn Tucson high school drama teacher, seemed like an epiphanic moment. Unfortunately, while the role begins to capture the inventiveness of Coogan, the mercurial film directed by Andrew Fleming and co-written by Fleming and Pam Brady is a disappointment.
“Hamlet 2” is book ended by a very nifty beginning and a sensational final reel with a musical that is roaringly funny, clever, inspired and profane. Songs such as “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” “You’re as Gay as the Day is Long and “Raped in the Face” are wincingly catchy. But the invention can’t disguise a gooey, unformed center, underscored by classroom scenes which feel dated and comedically rote. The throng of Hispanic students transferred into his acting class of two sycophants is stuffed into stereotypes without sending them up successfully. The unruly students, who we know will undergo a metamorphosis from cynics to thespians, are the focus of an unfunny parody which feels like “Stand and Deliver Lines.”
Marschz is introduced by bouts of physical humor, funny at first but too broad by far, so that when he roller skates to school, he skates so badly he holds up traffic in a pantomime way. The scene overplays the absurdity, like the moment where he arrives to class wearing a kaftan, without underpants, and slips and flips over. He is odd, full stop. He’s too silly, too distant to become the transformative influence the incorrigible class and plot requires. There’s no depth to his character. He is made so hapless that the final completed and complicated musical numbers of this sequel to Hamlet seem well beyond him.
A scene where Dana visits a student’s begrudging parents underlines his disconnect. The father (Marco Rodriguez in a meaty cameo) is a university scholar, of literature, who can’t abide the concept that someone, especially a teacher, would deign to make a sequel to Hamlet. It could have been an interesting and funny discussion. But Coogan’s character doesn’t connect with the father intellectually and instead physical humor bosses the moment. If the musical had been penned by the father, then, yes, it would seem plausible but Dana lacks the dexterity, depth and panache to author this work.
Sadly, the plot becomes enamored with a tiresome “Will they be able to put the play on?” dilemma as the school administration intervenes against the material. The film is lumbered with a berating, drill sergeant of a principal (Marshall Bell) and a haughty ACLU attorney (Amy Poehler). A more interesting and engaging comedy would have sidestepped the heavy-handedness and one-note tenor of the antagonists and simply asked the question, “How did the play come together?”
Likewise, a subplot involving his wife (Catherine Keener, aptly cast as a harridan) seems overbearing and tangential. (Again, because of the lack of connection, you’re left pondering how they ever hooked up in the first place.) It’s piling on a pathetic character and just ends up feeling mean. “Hamlet 2” lacks the tenderness of a film like “Little Miss Sunshine,“ which leavened the eccentricity of the characters with genuine affection for each other. It doesn’t mean the film melted into mush; it just got real and human. Steve Coogan can play real humans, real funny. We’re just still waiting to see it on the big screen.