'Hamlet 2': The Play's The Thing, By Kurt Loder

What precedes it's the problem.

"Hamlet 2" was so smothered in buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival that Focus Features apparently fought to pay $10 million dollars to acquire it. Now that the picture's being ushered out into the ticket-buying world, however, those who see it may wonder what's being put in the finger foods up in Park City.

The movie certainly sounds promising. Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor with an undying love for the theater. Having abased himself in late-night TV commercials for power juicers and herpes medications, Dana has now followed his muse to Tucson, Arizona, where he runs the drama department at a local high school. The student productions he stages, however -- musical adaptations of "Erin Brockovich" and "Mississippi Burning" -- find no favor with the school board, which is in a budget-cutting mood and has decided to shut him down. Upon receiving this news, Dana's wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), decides she's just about had it. She and her hapless spouse are already so broke that they've had to take in a boarder, a near-mute individual named Gary (David Arquette). Now this.

But Dana is undeterred. Defiantly, he announces one final production: a sequel to "Hamlet" -- a play at the end of which, as you may recall, all the main characters are dead. To finesse this problem, Dana's "Hamlet 2" will feature a time machine, which will bring all those dead characters back, along with Albert Einstein, Jesus and, for some reason, the as-yet-unexpired Dick Cheney. Motorcycles also figure in the proceedings. Several setbacks intervene, but in the end, as you'd expect, the show goes on.

Is there anyone who doesn't love Steve Coogan -- for his incomparable "Alan Partridge" BBC series, his flamboyant indie-music mogul in "24 Hour Party People," his general satirical brilliance? Here, though, director Andrew Fleming seems to have turned Coogan a little too loose, indulging him in frantic declamation and hit-and-miss slapstick. Catherine Keener -- is there anyone who doesn't love her, too? -- is as sharp and endearing as ever, but there's way too little of her. On the other hand, a funny, self-deprecating appearance by Elisabeth Shue, playing herself, adds an element of weird invention that the movie could have used more of. (The idea is that Shue has quit showbiz to become a nurse in a local fertility clinic; when Dana persuades her to give an address to his theater class, the first question she takes is, "Who are you?")

The movie suffers from its spotty humor and low-budget listlessness. Or maybe it's just that the bulk of the picture seems enervated in comparison to its rousing conclusion -- the glorious performance of "Hamlet 2." This is staged with a professionalism that's entirely ridiculous, of course -- what cash-strapped high school drama department could afford the elaborate scaffolding and whiz-bang effects on display here? But Ralph Sall's songs are exuberantly beltable ("Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" could be more than just a YouTube hit), and the whole extravaganza is more entertaining than some Broadway musicals I've actually sat through.

It's too bad that so little of what precedes the movie's dynamite wrap-up is worthy of it. Well, with the exception of the gay men's chorus that gives forth with an oddly moving rendition of "Maniac." Now that's entertainment.

Check out everything we've got on "Hamlet 2."

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Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The House Bunny," "The Rocker" and "Death Race," also new in theaters this week.