Pity poor Dana Marschz (pronounced ... er ... well, do your best). He's a failed actor whose career highlights are a spear-carrier role on "Xena," a herpes-cream TV spot, and a cameo as the "there's got to be a better way" guy in a Jack LaLanne Power Juicer infomercial. Any lower down on the showbiz totem pole and Marschz would be subterranean.
Reinventing himself as a high school drama teacher, Marschz remains nine-tenths naive enthusiasm and one dollop of misguided self-confidence. He strides into his baking hot Tucson classroom in academic-looking woolens and corduroy, accessorized with contrasting sweat stains. His theater curriculum has only two students, an uptight junior diva and a gender-uncertain young man. The only attention his work attracts are withering reviews from the school paper's 13-year-old drama critic.
When the budget ax swings at his program, Marschz decides to go out in a blaze of glory, pounding out a sequel to "Hamlet" and staging it with the 20-odd uncooperative lunkheads who were mistakenly assigned to his final class. Why, that's just crazy enough to work!
You might say the same of "Hamlet 2," a raunchy, irreverent slice of school and showbiz satire. Steve Coogan (also currently onscreen as "Tropic Thunder's" harried film director) makes Marschz a curiously sympathetic buffoon. His wife (Catherine Keener in top emasculating form) harpoons him with sarcasm at every opportunity. He roller-skates to work because he can't afford a car. His farewell production is a go-for-broke extravaganza that improves on Shakespeare by adding a time machine, sock-hop tunes and a plum role for himself as a singing, dancing Jesus.
The sacrilegious show draws the wrath of the school board and threatens to tear the community apart. The movie's script by Pam Brady ("South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut") might divide audiences in the same way with its unrelentingly silly, swing-for-the-fences absurdism. The film's saving graces are Andrew Fleming's easygoing direction and a solid cast. The broader Brady's dialogue and situations become, the more Fleming insists that the actors keep a straight face.
His low-key approach humanizes the story. Marschz could have become a ridiculous ham, but Coogan presents him as an endearing, misunderstood kid with heavy father issues working out his childhood traumas onstage. ("If my dad knew what I was up to, he'd crucify me," Jesus frets.) Not only do you understand him, you root for him, despite everything. Keener's part might have been a study on one-dimensional bitchiness, but her death-ray glare has a glint of sadness. She's a shrew, but a funny one, and you feel sympathy. Elizabeth Shue, that all-but-forgotten Oscar nominee, pops up to play herself in a cameo without winking at us.
Fleming saves most of his energy for the blowout final production numbers, which play like demented outtakes from "High School Musical." The politically incorrect production number, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," will probably be reprised in February's Oscarcast as an irreverent Best Original Song nominee. Ultimately, the film, a merciless parody of "inspirational teacher" movies, becomes oddly uplifting, with the sweet innocence of Marschz's artistic vision shining through the God-awful excess of his production. Like the play within the film, "Hamlet 2" could become a cause célèbre in spite of itself.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186