Sunday, September 07, 2008
At one point, watching the high school drama "Hamlet 2" (the eponymous play-within-the-play of this irreverent comedy film), a parent remarks "I'm simultaneously appalled and fascinated." At another point, a teenage drama critic opines that "sometimes things are so horrible they become good again. It could work." This thinly veiled self-commentary aptly describes this completely off-the-wall story of something like "Dead Poets Society" or "Mr. Holland's Opus" (both of which are explicitly alluded to), but as they might have been written by Monty Python and cast by the students of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The film plumbs the depths of silliness and good-natured irreverence (taking swipes at both fundamentalist Christians and ACLU attorneys). Parts of it are eye-rollingly corny, but I laughed a lot and I enjoyed numerous hearty out-loud laughs. Steve Coogan reminded me of Eric Idle, delivering physical comedy that was near the top and often over it. Catherine Keener (whom I remembered from playing Harper Lee in Capote) was quite funny in her part as his sarcastic wife. The kids were all well-cast in their cartoon characters, as was the charicature school principal. Elisabeth Shue had an amusingly off-the-wall role as herself, and the bit of the feared and respected drama critic for the school paper had me in stitches. Unabashedly piling together plot devices from every "inspirational teacher" film, our anti-hero surmounts an apathetic class, a hostile principal, parents who don't approve of his new play, a cynical wife, financial troubles, a drinking problem, and racial tension -- all in the most irreverently amusing ways -- building to the crescendo of staging Hamlet 2. Yes, the sequel to that Hamlet, the one where everyone dies in the end. This is no high art, nor does it strive to be, but it's extraordinarily silly and clever good fun.