In the Mesa high school in Tucson where Fleming sets his gonzo theatrics, culture is either alive-and-well or being beaten to death with a sack full of cantaloupes, depending on who you talk to. The drama department has just finished a stage production of Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, under the tutelage of Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). An actor who hit his peak on commercials for herpes medication and Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer (two products that aren't always mutually exclusive), Marschz has moved his wife (Catherine Keener) and random friend Dave (David Arquette) to Arizona to teach acting. It's the first day of the new semester when Marschz finds out that his class has grown from a closeted homosexual (Skylar Astin) and a goody-two-shoes (Phoebe Strole) to an entire class made up mostly of Latino outcasts and some white dude who has a jones for rave culture. It's no small wonder that Marschz's dementia, once goofy and lovable, becomes unstable and leads concurrently to the attempted dismantling of the drama department and the writing of Marschz's titular brainchild, Hamlet 2.
Fleming puts a lot of weight on Coogan and, more often than not, it pays off. Coogan has more naivety than Will Ferrell or Jack Black but he has the same ability to mix deadpan with engulfing stupidity to combine a good pitch with physicality. But, as many a Matthew McConaughey joint has been quick to point out, no man is an island, and Coogan gets little help from Fleming. The supporting cast, which includes Elisabeth Shue playing herself and Amy Poehler as a free speech lawyer quick to point out that she's married to a Jew, throws a few one liners in the air, but the first three-quarters of the film feels like build-up and little else.
Thank goodness then that the main event doesn't disappoint. Devilishly scatterbrained and profoundly moronic, Marschz's chef d'oeuvre incorporates a multimedia projection of Hamlet's father, a time machine, a hilarious musical bop titled "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," Laertes in an outfit better suited for Ennis Del Mar, and an odd opening number that speaks of being "raped in the face," one of Marschz's favored sayings. It's a doozy, but none of the tiresome racial epithets, mostly directed toward Latinos, nor the naughty words that surround this magnum opus of raunch deliver the outrage they so badly try to stir up.
Thanks to Fleming's direction, none of this even seems to lead anywhere, leaving the story feeling unconcentrated and the laughs arbitrary rather than biting. Mr. Fleming has directed two features before this, last year's Nancy Drew and the 2003 remake of Arthur Hiller's The In-Laws, and like his latest endeavor they all have the comfort of well-regulated amusement. That the laughs in Nancy Drew would be bound and gagged by the laughs in Hamlet 2 doesn't matter; that they share a lack of consistency does. One wishes the film could deliver the groundbreaking satire that shows up so regularly at Brady's day job, but the film really only seems in line with the foul mouths of its four central eight-year-olds. After all the would-be pejoratives and burnt social morals have hit the floor, it turns out Fleming has become a mirror of Marschz: a director in love with his medium yet unable to see the mess he's making of it.
To jazz hands, or not to jazz hands.
Run time: 92 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 27th August 2008
Box Office USA: $4.8M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 88 Rotten: 54
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Andrew Fleming
Producer: Aaron Ryder, Leonid Rozhetskin, Eric D. Eisner
Starring: Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, Catherine Keener as Brie Marschz, Joseph Julian Soria as Octavio, Melonie Diaz as Ivonne, Arnie Pantoja as Vitamin J, Skylar Astin as Rand Posin, Phoebe Strole as Epiphany Sellars, Michael Esparza as Chuy, Natalie Amenula as Yolanda, Marshall Bell as Principal Rocker, David Arquette as Gary, Elisabeth Shue as Elisabeth Shue, Marco Rodríguez as Mr. Marquez, Deborah Chavez as Mrs. Marquez, Evan Adrian as Danny the Waiter