“To act is to live,” pronounces Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). Once an ambitious woulda-been actor, Dana is now a high school drama teacher in Tucson, annually mounting productions of his own scripts, based on Hollywood movies. He prefers plots that feature inspirational protagonists, Patch Adams or, as in his most recent effort, Erin Brokovich. Watching from the back of the auditorium, he mouths the words with his terminally vivacious star, Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), as she lists the numbers defining her life that surely won’t appeal to her new love interest. The cornier the speech, the more Dana loves it.
Dana’s inability to parse the difference between acting and living is put to several tests in Hamlet 2, which is not only the name of his movie but also the title of the audacious play he writes for his students to perform. Gargantuan and weird even beyond the ambition of its title, the play has Jesus returning to earth in order to manage Hamlet’s time travel: he goes back to fix the familial mess in Denmark and manufacture a happy ending, complete with a resurrected Ophelia, a bicurious Laertes, a light-saber battle, and the Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus singing “Maniac” from Flashdance. The thing tops off with Dana as Jesus — moonwalking on water (a completely delightful visual) and descending on wires to fly out over the audience.
His cast for this production is (relatively) huge: unlike years past, when he was working with East Mesa High’s precious few and very pale theater nerds, now he finds his class oversubscribed with Latinos — kids in t-shirts and baggy jeans, angry, hopeless, and, Dana imagines, in need of his inspiration (this even when he learns they’re in the class because other electives have been cancelled). Before you can say “Dangerous Minds” — and Dana does, wondering whether his new charges have seen it and revere it as he does — he’s decided to save them all from their seemingly hardscrabble, hopeless lives. This even as he’s slamming one poor girl on the head with a garbage can he heaves at the class to get their attention and tripping over the caftan he’s started wearing as a treatment for his low sperm count.
Drawing from his pop-sources, Dana is most determined to save the talented Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) from a gangster’s life as well salvage his marriage to the exceptionally cranky Brie (Catherine Keener): all his ambitions have to do with his manhood, in some familiar movie-white-guy way, and yet Hamlet 2, co-written and directed by Andrew Fleming (who made the sublime Dick), also tweaks the clichés while deploying them.
As complicated as it sounds, this juggling act is not a straight-up success. The film piles on bits of business, including an introductory reel of Dana’s TV commercials (pitching a juicer from Jack LaLanne and herpes medication) as well as repeated sight gags (Dana pratfalling, scrunching his face, and roller-skating to work, in helmet and billowing robe: on tripping into the pavement yet again, he mutters, “Gravel is the bane of my existence”). Dana’s much-pondered life is also subject to enlightening reversals (Octavio’s parents object to his playing Hamlet not because they’re “ethnically narrow-minded,” but because they’re academics who think the play is poorly written) and banal plot turns: Brie cheats on her husband, Dana Principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) declares the play pornography — in part because it includes a number called “Raped in the Face,” born of Dana’s frustrations — and endeavors to shut it down.
The film doesn’t keep wholly focused on its generic/anti-generic tensions, however, and at times the excess becomes the center. The kids act out the usual race tensions and attractions, underscoring the film’s own frustrations with such prescriptive modes (when faced with her new classmates, Epiphany sighs, “I try, but I still get anxious around ethnics!”). Less regular is the arrival of ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler). who’s caught wind of the efforts to shut down the play (“I Married a Jew!”, she announces). Fierce and apparently humorless (though Poehler’s elasto-face is never quite that), she surges into town and assures her new client that his show will go on. Newly depressed and also freed up by the discovery that his wife is unfaithful (a plot point that’s obvious from the moment she’s introduced alongside her lover), Dana finds himself in his art. He is living, at last, as he is acting.
Sort of. Even this formulaic notion is upended. In the film’s silliest and grandest development, Dana happens to meet Elizabeth Shue, the real one, now working as a nurse at his fertility clinic. She’s left acting, she says, because Hollywood is crass and greedy. Nodding as she speaks from her heart, Dana is beside himself: “What was it like to work with Nicholas Cage?” he gushes.
As Shue’s appearance makes plain the discrepancy between Dana’s creative ambitions and his giddy fandom, she also embodies the film’s potentially preposterous ethos. It’s not just that art sets standards of quality and morality, but that consumers find their art as it’s presented to them. On one level, this grants the terrible play Hamlet 2 its own worth: the fervent Christian girls who show up to pray and protest the profane use of Jesus are won over and singing along by the second act. On another level, it indicts both cultural hooligans and snobs (who sometimes become each other, as in the critical adulation of Erin Brokovich or Leaving Los Vegas).
Shue is both of the film’s world and beyond it, “herself” and not herself, Dana’s projection, muse, and painfully earnest love interest. Her performance is decidedly odd here, its rhythms not matching anyone else’s and its significance uneven. Shue looks both plucky and displaced. When Dana asks her to speak to his students, they actually don’t know who she is, but one asks politely what she misses about acting. It’s kissing costars in love scenes, she says. All that sensual contact, no matter how fake or real, is just not allowed in nursing. As she sits in the audience for Dana’s musical extravaganza, her face upturned, her smile growing broader by the minute, you realize she is the play/film’s ideal viewer, wanting to be transported, and at last, maybe imagining she has been.