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Originally published Friday, August 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Hamlet 2": Good idea becomes much ado about ... not much

Steve Coogan flails, to occasional comic effect, in Andrew Fleming's drama-kid comedy "Hamlet 2."

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Hamlet 2," with Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, Melonie Diaz, Joseph Julian Sorian, Skylar Astin, Phoebe Strole, Elisabeth Shue. Directed by Andrew Fleming, from a screenplay by Pam Brady and Fleming. 92 minutes. Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content. Lincoln Square, Neptune and Pacific Place.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is a Tucson drama teacher who believes that "to act is to live" — consequently, his whole life seems like an act. He roller-skates to work, dresses in odd caftans and likes to make announcements like, "My life is a parody of a tragedy." His wife Brie (Catherine Keener) is contemptuous of him, his students are mostly dismissive, the pint-size critic at the school paper hates his work and the school principal announces that the drama program's being canceled. What does Dana do? Why, stages a musical sequel to "Hamlet," of course.

Andrew Fleming's "Hamlet 2" is one of those movies that I really wanted to like better than I did; the idea sounded fresh and the cast gifted. And it's full of appealingly goofy moments that show that Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady understand the world they're writing about it. Dana has two devoted students (the other ones mostly ignore him, at least initially) who've breathlessly immersed themselves into the be-in-the-moment actor mind frame: When a moment of violence takes place in the classroom, young Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), who's in no way involved with the incident, gasps happily, "I can't believe this is happening to me!" Amy Poehler brings her sharp-eyed quickness to a small role as an ACLU lawyer brought in to keep the school from shutting down Dana's show.

And Elisabeth Shue appears as herself — that is, as a version of the actress Elisabeth Shue, who got tired of acting and decided to become a Tucson fertility-clinic nurse. It's a performance so utterly endearing that the movie calms down when she's present. When Dana persuades her to talk to his students about acting, she projects a sweet real-person nervousness; within this movie's universe, she's the only character who's really an actor, and she's less mannered than anyone else on screen.

This, alas, brings us to the movie's main problem. Coogan, an often brilliant comic actor (check him out in "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"), is giving a performance here that's so outsize, it mostly falls flat. Except for a perfect little Jeremy Irons imitation late in the movie, he's flailing, and Fleming doesn't seem to know how to rein him in. Likewise, the show the kids put on at the end of the movie is so deliberately absurd it's unintelligible; particularly in a number called "Sexy Jesus," it's weird without being funny.

"Hamlet 2" is a likable movie even as it careens around like a wagging tail, but it's just too uneven. There's a very nice, subtle performance in it by a cat, a reference to which I scribbled in my screening notes. When you start critiquing the cat, alas, something's gone off the rails.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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