Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Coming to America


In a recent interview in The Onion AV Club, Steve Coogan described his reasons for adopting an American accent to play Hamlet 2's failed actor-turned-high school drama teacher Dana Marschz. Coogan said that the character had an open-armed love-me quality which, in his opinion, was not characteristic of the British. His previous roles(TV's Alan Partridge, 24 Hour Party People's Tony Wilson and Around the World in 80 Days' Phileas Fogg) all possessed a snarky, sarcastic demenor, and a firm (if sometimes ill-informed) belief that they have the upper hand in any given situation. While Marschz is just as much if not more of an egotist as his British characters, his unfailing optimism, touchy-feely self-indulgence, and wide-eyed innocence that sometimes borders on the psychotic, are all thoroughly American.

What Hamlet 2 may lack as a structured comedy it makes up for in a brilliantly broad-stroked comedic character study. Marschz is introduced to us, Tropic Thunder/Grindhouse style in the beginning of the film, by a series of commercials and clips from his acting "career" - a hilarious Herpes medication infomercial and thirty-second stint as a quickly-dispatched Red Shirt-style extra in an episode of "Xena." Now, as a drama teacher in Tuscon, Arizona, he rollerskates back and forth to work in lieu of owning a car, and puts on incredibly mediocre, biannual Max Fisher Players-style stage adaptations of movies like Erin Brockovich. When budget cuts threaten to axe the drama department, Marschz inspires his class, which consists of a loveable bunch of tough Latino gangbangers, as well as a couple of over-enthusiastic theater geeks, to perform an original work which will save the school - a ludicrously oedipal musical sequel to Shakespeare's masterwork.

The contrivances of the inspirational-teacher subgenre is first to be laid down on the satirical chopping block - surely, there are more people like Mr. Marschz in the American school system than anyone resembling Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. Behind the facade of Marschz's gollywhillickers enthusiasm is a denial of his own failures so labyrinthine that you'd need a weed-whacker to untangle them. His marriage could at best be described as sadomasochistic (Catherine Keener, as his wife, makes her character in Being John Malkovich look positively sweet in comparison,) he can't have children, and no-one takes him remotely seriously. He also has daddy issues by the truckload - like the Great Dane, he sees the specter of his father everywhere, from the high school's gruff principal who thinks the arts are a waste of time, to the pint-sized 14-year-old drama critic for the school paper who mercilessly lambasts his directorial efforts. The play itself - a musical in which Hamlet and Jesus Christ travel back in time to save their loved ones and forgive their fathers, is in itself a form of therapy, of exorcising paternal demons. If the product of his efforts - which involves Octavius as a bicurious cowboy and the Tuscon Gay Men's Choir singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" - isn't quite as memorably distasteful as "Springtime for Hitler," it was only because Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom produced that play as a deliberate attempt to offend and shock. "Hamlet 2," on the other hand, is a heart-on-its-sleeve, deeply personal work according to its creator - even if everyone else quite rightly sees it as ridiculous schlock.

Marschz is a buffoon, to be sure, but thanks to Coogan, a lovable one, in spite of all his flaws. Though we laugh at him when he rollerskates into a wall or tells one of his Hispanic student's very wealthy and well-educated parents that they "can't let their ethnic small-mindedness" prevent their son from performing in the play, we are still compelled to cheer when he moonwalks across a cellophane water set made up as an admittedly rocking sexy Jesus. We want to see him succeed. Like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubistch, Coogan has a brilliant eye for detail, satire and subtlety, which allows him both to mock and celebrate an American archetype - the new-agey, self-important, deluded schmuck with the heart of gold - from a foreigner's arm's length. Although the Bard famously said "To Thine Own Self Be True," I'd be hard pressed to think of an American actor who could play Dana Marschz with the complexity that Coogan did.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home