WHY DO SO MANY of today's movies start brilliantly and then go nowhere? I think they're like certain romantic suitors: strong starters but poor finishers. Take this summer's Hancock, whose premise - reluctant superhero messes up everything he tries - was so attractively original. But after a promising first lap, the movie lurched abruptly into comic-book tripe. I guess it is much easier to have a good idea than it is to sustain it over the length of a feature-length film.
The comedy Hamlet 2 is plagued by the same condition. The movie, directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming, has good ideas, among them the absurd notion of a sequel to Hamlet. What it lacks, unfortunately, is the stamina to successfully develop those ideas.
It's disappointing, because the movie has the markings of a winner. It was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and its creators and cast have good credentials. Fleming made the likable Watergate teen-comedy Dick, and his co-writer, Pam Brady, is a South Park veteran who co-wrote the brilliantly funny South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut. The star, Steve Coogan, who plays the ill-fated movie director in Tropic Thunder, is a noted British comedian and actor, and his wife is played by the excellent Catherine Keener.
The story is about a Tucson high school drama teacher, the improbably surnamed Dana Marschz (Coogan), who directs a ridiculous musical show in hopes of saving the school's drama program. The first half-hour is filled with funny lines, most of them belonging to the flinty Keener, who plays Dana's frustrated wife, Brie. The cash-strapped couple has taken in a boarder, dull-witted Gary (David Arquette, a specialist in dumb-guy roles). "Gary has a car," deadpans Brie. "Maybe I can get him to run me over with it."
These early scenes raise hopes that Hamlet 2 will be the kind of sardonic comedy so longed for by superhero-saturated summer moviegoers. But the film outlasts its laughs by a long stretch, meandering into pointless subplots - including one involving actress Elisabeth Shue playing herself - which have no comic payoff. The movie tries to parody too many things, including inspirational-teacher movies like Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Poets Society, as well as "let's put on a show" student musicals.
Dana, an untalented former actor reduced to teaching for gas money, finds that his latest production - an adaptation of the movie Erin Brockovich - has been slammed by the ninth-grade theater critic. When the school board announces plans to eliminate the theater department, Dana decides to write his magnum opus - an absurd "sequel" to Hamlet in which Dana exorcises the demons of his relationship with his father. Alongside dedicated students Rand and Epiphany (Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole), Dana casts several of the tough, mistrustful Latino students who have been forced to take his class.
Dana's play has Hamlet and Laertes returning from the dead to set things right and to confront Hamlet's father. Somehow Jesus figures into the action, so the play features a showstopping '50s-style number called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," with Dana as a studly, shirtless savior who descends onto the stage on wires.
When the school board, parents and community hear of the blasphemous play, they try to stop the production, until a publicity-hungry ACLU lawyer (Saturday Night Live's Amy Poehler) takes up the case. During rehearsals, Dana suffers slings and arrows. His wife leaves him, and his students push him off the wagon after years of sobriety by spiking his iced tea with LSD. Dana, with the benighted optimism of Candide, persists, and the show goes on.
The Hamlet 2 stage show owes a lot stylistically to Little Shop of Horrors, with a touch of Springtime for Hitler outrageousness. The songs, by Fleming and Brady, are mildly amusing, but the production is far too slick to be convincing as the work of high school students. Still, there is something sweet about Hamlet 2, just as there is about some of those ineffectual suitors. It is, like its hero, an endearing, well-meaning semi-failure.