“Hamlet 2” retrospective movie review

An ode to creativity and free expression

The subjects of the creative process and free expression have long been sources of interest for artists across numerous mediums. Whether as documentaries examining the exegesis of a performer’s craft or the righteous fury of individuals fighting to communicate ideas that go against societal norms; both concepts make for engaging works that can provide perspective on societies and the people who comprise them.

In discussing an underappreciated film celebrating its tenth anniversary it may appear as an overstating preface, but in 2018 the ideas contained within Hamlet 2 remain resonant for a number of societal discourses that have only gained prominence in recent times.

Premiering as a rough cut at Sundance in 2008, the resulting vision of director/co-writer Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady is a star vehicle for Steve Coogan to display the comedic prowess that garnered a cult following as Alan Partridge in the UK.

Starring as Dana Maschz, a high school drama teacher in Tucson with aspirations of acting but little discernable talent, his biannual productions adapted from Hollywood films such as Erin Brockovich are the source of ridicule from the student body and school administration alike – ‘is this an ironic gesture or is he just profoundly confused?’.

With funding cuts bringing in a cast of misfits uninterested in the antics of a wannabe Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society, further issues arise when school principal Rocker (Marshall Bell) issues notice that in order to balance the school board’s budget the cancellation of the drama program will be ‘no great loss’.

Driven to stop the decision by the only means known, Dana produces his opus – a sequel to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet involving time travel and a ‘sexy Jesus’. Drawing outrage from incensed authority figures in staging a high school production involving alleged nudity and pornography, as well as the audacity of adding onto one of the most celebrated literary works, Dana’s drive to share his passion among the young is eventually rewarded with acclaim.

Much like last year’s celebrated The Disaster Artist, Hamlet 2 is a love letter to outsiders seeking acceptance through art, in spite of a total lack of talent. While Tommy Wiseau’s The Room was intended as an earnest drama before finding success as an ‘in on the joke’ comedy, the production within Hamlet 2 comes to be treated as a genuine artistic statement, despite critics levelling sight unseen accusations of violating moral standards and blasphemy.

In this way the same hysteria that accompanied Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Kevin Smith’s Dogma – a comparison few would be likely to draw – is presented as farcical with pre-determined outrage of provocative art given a treatment bettered only by Smith’s involvement in the protest of his own film at the turn of the century.

Given screenwriter Pam Brady’s previous work alongside Trey Parker and Matt Stone with South Park and Team America, the satirical edge is evident throughout the 92-minute box office disappointment, but for all the subtext within the film, the undeniable truth lies in the uproarious laughter to be found in the complete commitment of Coogan. Giving everything of himself to a character that could easily be phoned in as a caricature of a tragic artist dealing with unresolved parental issues, his willingness to convert his students to the art of performance manifests into a moment akin to the climax of Little Miss Sunshine – if ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ doesn’t reduce you to guffawing than your comedic fortitude is near impenetrable.

At the most simplistic of levels Hamlet 2 works on the most important gauge of a comedy – the laughs are plentiful and big. However, just as some of the great comedies had their main focuses on being funny, there is also a serious side that has only become more relevant with the passing of time.

In 2018 the ideological divide that has widened in the context surrounding the Trump presidency has put free expression at the forefront of social discourse. As a result of the voice given to disenfranchised groups through technology and consciously determined efforts to increase diversity, the on-going homogenous dominance of culture has been put under a spotlight in a dynamic contest of ideas.

For the most part the discussions to have emerged regarding the agency, rights and responsibilities of various social groups have resulted in positive progress through movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. However among the renewed dissolution of certainty, the appropriate responses and judgements to individual cases have varied in a manner that is inevitable due to the myth that all cases can be viewed as equal.

In a society that exists with power dynamics that privilege certain groups, the tension that exists between upholding socially accepted standards and shutting down debate is unlikely to be resolved overnight. There is a constant need to re-evaluate based on context; for individuals who long for a definitive world this is a struggle they are fundamentally opposed to. Often the ideological right are branded as intolerant with labels of racism and bigotry thrust upon them – there are instances where these claims can be valid and justified, but discussions tend to extend as far as telling someone they are wrong without a rational explanation as for why.

Similarly, the moral outrage of some self-described progressives has seen a total rejection of opposing ideas without engaging with the very things they view as destructive forces. The outrage that came about in response to the virtually anonymous documentary The Red Pill when filmmaker Cassie Jaye toured Australia in 2017 was an encapsulation of the pre-determined outrage Hamlet 2 mocks. With segments of social and commercial media regarding the film as apologising for violent men and diminishing the real struggles faced by women historically, the greatest publicity tool in making audiences attracted to a film boasting the production values of an intermediate student film production was the condemnation of opponents who hadn’t seen Jaye’s film based on reported subject matter alone.

While opponents of socially constructed controversy hold the belief that vocally condemning ‘destructive’ culture is in the interest of public safety, the reality is often the exact opposite of their intentions. In shining a light on something and declaring it to be dangerous, the net result is what every child told ‘no’ responds with – coveting the forbidden. This very sentiment is epitomised during a sequence from Straight Outta Compton where copies of N.W.A.’s debut album are destroyed in a public demonstration. Rather than decry the outrage, Eazy-E muses “truth be told they can do whatever they want – they still bought a copy!”. Instead of directing attention on essentially insignificant texts that go against dominant narratives, the most effective means of eliminating the object of disapproval isn’t to give it oxygen, rather to suffocate it of coverage – ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Just as opposition to the play in Hamlet 2 from outraged citizens made it a hit, the same happened in Australia with The Red Pill.

As a society aspiring for an open exchange of ideas, expression shouldn’t automatically be stifled on subject matter alone. There are ways and contexts in which horrific situations can be approached that bring about valuable responses. Hateful and destructive opinions ought to be shut down after they have been said. There is also importance to be found in self-regulation, but as many have claimed on numerous occasions, a free expression of ideas includes those which we disagree with. We don’t have to like what people say, we have the ability to respond and call them out with an explanation, but they still retain the right to voice an opinion – not every opinion is equal or should carry respect, but everyone is entitled to have one.

One of the great films of recently deceased director Milos Forman The People vs. Larry Flynt deals directly with this very issue. As a society segments of the population may perceive pornography to be unwholesomely offensive, but when infringements are placed upon culture based on what is considered ‘acceptable’ for adults to consume, the subsequent evaluation of moral appropriateness will ultimately result in an encroaching restriction of creative expression.

It is unlikely that the team behind Hamlet 2 regarded the social ramifications their work would resonate with ten years on during the making of the film. At the forefront of any comedy is a getting laugh; anything that comes after is secondary. Arguments surrounding free speech and expression existed well before 2008 and will go on long after the present day, but in a time where the world is becoming increasingly tense – at least with limited perspective – there is great value to be found in comedy as a means of releasing and understanding the societal pressure cooker. The subjective nature of comedy appeals to many on varying levels; for those eager for a laugh at a high concept premise that will leave many entertained and enlightened, perhaps ten years on just as Steve Coogan’s character gave a second life to Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist, Hamlet 2 is deserving of the same treatment.

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