Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Hamlet 2": it's not a sequel, but it has a "play within a play"

Would you believe, I read William Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" for a book report my senior year in high school. My 1960 paperback copy still has my study scribbles. The class mandatory unit was "Macbeth", but we had to pick another play. And my seeing the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film from Columbia (all four hours) was a bit of an epiphany for me, especially the “honor” battlefield speech by Hamlet before the intermission (the middle of Act IV) and the stirring music of Patrick Doyle. Curiously, the movie comes across as a Stephen King classic, and the “play within a play” (Act II) makes a powerful point about the significance of dramatized fiction that can incite reality.

Well, Andrew Fleming’s spoof “Hamlet 2” (Focus Features) is not a sequel (imdb is deceiving on this film), and the “play” that drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) writes (in FinalDraft, with the help of a humanoid pet cat), all while his unstable wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, his Tucson, AZ high school principal eliminates his department and then tries to stop his play. So in comes the ACLU (Amy Poehler) along with Elisabeth Shue (herself) to get the show on, with a “time machine” (missing Marky Mark) made by the school’s industrial arts department (call it “shop” where you roll up your sleeves to work), and a big warehouse with enough height for wire acts, especially for aspiring young actor Rand (Skylar Astin), whom Dana tempts regarding his sexuality. In fact, Dana even recruits the Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus. It’s all pretty bizarre behavior for a teacher, and probably over the top for real First Amendment protection given our Supreme Court – but, as Poehler points out, the Ninth Circuit is more liberal. Let's say that the school administration and many parents were "very offended" by his play. They needed to be. (See my posting on "Baghead").

As for the play itself, it supposes the characters in Hamlet go into the time machine so they don’t have to die (the end of the Branagh film is quite wild, as the characters swing from the chandeliers, like naughty kids). Jesus forgives his father the same way Hamlet does. Perhaps the embedded play-within-a-movie is a bit like Terrence McNally’s play "Corpus Christi".

The film also calls to mind Josh Stohlberg's "Kids in America" (2005), with Gregory Smith (as a kind of Holden Caulfield), which also presents a "free speech in schools" comedy.

Let’s reproduce that wonderful Act IV monologue quote of "Hamlet":
"What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed a beast no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse.
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused."
"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarter in a straw
When honor's at the stake."

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