Bright Lights Film Journal

It Would Make John Waters Proud, But Shakespeare? Musical Spectacle and the Missing Bard in Hamlet 2

“Coogan’s representation of Jesus, ascending high above the audience, is far removed from the silly, sexy Jesus who sang to us earlier wearing a wife-beater.”

Hamlet, Polonius, and Hillary Clinton have group sex, Laertes explores his bi-curious nature, and Gertrude gives Hamlet a hand job. Jesus Christ moonwalks on water, Albert Einstein confesses to being raped in the face, and the self-proclaimed Gay Men’s Choir of Tuscan belts out the song “Maniac” from the 1983 movie Flashdance. Each of these situations is either referenced or played out onscreen in Andrew Fleming’s bizarre little film Hamlet 2 (2008). Fortunately, the mother-son masturbatory encounter and the Hamlet-/Clinton-family threesome are limited to fleeting dialogue; the others, I’m afraid, are not. It is no wonder then that Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman writes that Hamlet 2 is a film that would “make John Waters proud” (Sept. 10, 2008). But what about William Shakespeare? Where does he fit into all of this? After all, the movie does boast the title of his most well-known play. This article seeks to address such questions.

After high-school theatre teacher Dana Marschz (played by British comedian Steve Coogan) learns that his drama program has been cut from the curriculum, he responds by mounting one final, controversial stage production — a rock-musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It doesn’t matter to Dana that everyone dies at the end of the tragedy; he has a device.

As this clip suggests, the entire premise of the movie Hamlet 2, its musical production numbers in particular, presumably rests on Dana’s preposterous-sounding sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or “the Deuce” as he calls it. But oddly, Fleming’s film seldom references Shakespeare, Hamlet, or anything related to the Bard; and when it does, it’s mostly in passing. For example, at the beginning of the film, Dana harasses an uncooperative student with the line “I’d like to see your Bottom.” There is a long pause and some funny reactions shots from the startled class before Dana explains that he’s talking about Bottom the Weaver from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As well, in one of the scenes in which the students rehearse for their upcoming production, Dana is dressed in Elizabethan garb including a doublet and feathered hat. But no one else is, and what’s more, the lines the students practice have nothing to do with either Hamlet or Shakespeare, but riff on Jesus Christ, who apparently “is sexy and has the body of a swimmer.”

Indeed, contrary to what we expect from both its trailer and title, Hamlet 2 is not concerned with adapting or even spoofing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rather, as a vehicle for Coogan’s comedic talent, it mainly seeks to satirize a specific dramatic subgenre, comment on the gritty business of Hollywood, and stage puzzling musical numbers. (Some would also throw the phrase stereotypes teens into this mix since the film features conventional urban misfits: the gay kid who’s unaware of his sexuality and an overachieving wannabe starlet. But we’ll just consider the initial three here.) First, Hamlet 2‘s overriding objective is to spoof inspirational teacher movies like To Sir with Love (1967), Dead Poets’ Society (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), and Finding Forrester (2000). In fact, Coogan’s character cites at least three of these films, some more than once, as he tries unsuccessfully to encourage his students to open their minds and seize the day, as it were. Second, Hamlet 2 comments on the ugliness of Hollywood via Elizabeth Shue’s character. For instance, Shue, who plays herself as an actor-turned-nurse, agrees to speak to Dana’s drama class about her films and the industry but only if she can also talk about “all of the insecurity and self-loathing” that accompanies the profession. To reinforce this notion, the film ends with Dana, Shue, and the students on Broadway, not in Hollywood.

Finally, in addition to sending up inspirational teacher movies and criticizing Hollywood, Hamlet 2 aims to simultaneously embrace and mock musical theatre by creating captivating but inexplicable and, some would argue, disturbing musical numbers. The first, entitled “Raped in the Face,” features a waitress, a cowboy, a gangbanger, a bride, and Albert Einstein singing about their subconscious, drugs, and the feeling of being raped in the face. I should point out that Ophelia and Hamlet perform in this number as well, but since they aren’t introduced as such until the film’s closing number, we have no idea who they are. Likewise, the lyrics and odd mix of characters (e.g., waitress, cowboy, Einstein) are never explained. In fact, on the DVD commentary, even the director wasn’t sure why he inserted Einstein in this number; he says only that “it has to do with relativity.”

The second and most memorable of the three musical numbers is entitled “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.” It is catchy, fun, and energetic; but like “Raped in the Face,” the number is also quite confusing. In keeping with the crass tone of Hamlet 2, I’ll describe “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” thusly: it as though the musical Grease screwed the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and spawned a love child that, one character claims, is “simultaneously horrifying and fascinating.” See the video below.

Earlier in Hamlet 2, we are told that the Son of God will get stuck in Hamlet’s time machine, so it’s not completely surprising that he is featured in one of the musical numbers. What is unexpected, however, is that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is Hamlet 2‘s main attraction. It is the most memorable thing about the film, which is why, I suppose, it is also featured prominently in the trailer, on the movie poster and DVD cover (below), on the DVD menu, and is the most downloaded song from the movie on iTunes. Moreover, it is this number that my film students began citing and humming when I told them I was writing a paper on Hamlet 2.

There is a third musical number in Hamlet 2, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” On its surface, it seems to contradict what I am suggesting: that Hamlet 2 has very little to do with Hamlet 1 or William Shakespeare. After all, the number does reveal bits and pieces of the original: Hamlet and Laertes fight and then reunite, Hamlet knocks over Gertrude’s glass containing the poisonous wine, Hamlet gives Ophelia CPR after she attempts to drown herself, and Hamlet forgives his father (see images below). Ultimately, all the characters live happily ever after. All of this, by the way, is accompanied by the aforementioned self-proclaimed Gay Men’s Choir of Tuscan who sing Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” As a result, at least five minutes of the film devote themselves, rather seriously I might add, to Shakespeare. But still, there are problems here.

First, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is heavily crosscut. In “Raped in the Face” and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” the camera cuts back and forth from the stage to the audience; that’s all. As a result, the spectator theoretically remains in the moment of the performances, no matter how peculiar or sacrilegious they may be. However, throughout “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” parallel editing constantly moves the viewer from the stage to the audience, from the audience to backstage, and from backstage to outdoors. Additionally, in the backstage and outdoor shots, Elton John’s song fades out to reveal dialogue that is irrelevant to the number itself. For example, in the wings, two unlikely students reveal their unrequited love for one another, and in the parking lot, Amy Poehler’s first-amendment lawyer threatens a group of firefighters who want to shut down the performance: “You wanna hit me? I would love it if you hit me! I’m married to a Jew. I’ve got nothing to lose!” All of this crosscutting and behind-the-scenes humor chop up the film’s only true Hamlet-inspired moment, again leaving the viewer’s expectations mostly unmet.

Another problem here is that “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” ends not with Hamlet, Ophelia, and Gertrude, but with Coogan’s resurrected Jesus Christ. Suspended high above the audience in a white robe, Jesus calls out to his Father, “I forgive you. I forgive you.” After this, we are allowed a reaction shot from Elizabeth Shue’s character; she looks up at Jesus and remarks earnestly, “Wow.” She as well as the rest of the audience is sincerely moved by this number. Then the lights go dark, and the students’ rock-musical Hamlet 2 ends. What’s strange is that Shue and the other spectators are right: though fragmented, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is actually quite poignant, especially for a movie that revels in showing Steve Coogan’s naked backside (at least three times) and including lines like this one: “Well, this play is gonna bitch-slap Broadway like a cheap hooker at a gangbang.” It’s true: Elton John’s song fits perfectly with the theme of forgiveness. As well, the blocking and lighting are visually stunning in several shots as they highlight each of Shakespeare’s characters (below).

Additionally, Ophelia’s drowning is creatively rendered as she spins round and round until she becomes a part of the waves herself. Furthermore, Coogan’s representation of Jesus, ascending high above the audience, is far removed from the silly, sexy Jesus who sang to us earlier wearing a wife-beater. Here, his cries of forgiveness do not just represent those of the crucified Christ, but also those of his character Dana, who mentions throughout the movie that he “has a troubled relationship with his father.” But again, as aesthetically pleasing as some of the Hamlet-affiliated shots are, it is Jesus, not Shakespeare, who garners our final attention here. As such, the number, like most of Hamlet 2, again turns into a showpiece for Coogan’s character; and we quickly forget about the Hamlet-related parts, choppy and stunning as they were.

A third and final problem with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is that it doesn’t quite gel with the rest of Hamlet 2. Again, the number is not wacky or crude like most of the content in this slapstick movie; in fact, as implied above, it even successfully moves the onscreen audience and, arguably, the spectator in the theater. For these reasons, one might think that the number would stand out; but it doesn’t. In a narrative that features riotous nudity, multiple sight gags, the self-referentiality of Elizabeth Shue, and a song entitled “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” the only true Hamlet-related sequence is rather forgettable. Ironically then, Hamlet 2 is most memorable because of its lack of attention to Shakespeare.