The movie career of Steve Coogan has so far proved to be a fascinatingly erratic subject. Sure, it’s not unusual to find a successful British TV comedian struggle to establish himself in movies, particularly in Hollywood. For every Dudley Moore, who became a huge movie star in the States with Arthur and 10, you only have to look at Peter Cook - the true genius in that partnership - whose transatlantic film career barely made it beyond Supergirl.
The movie career of Steve Coogan has so far proved to be a fascinatingly erratic subject. Sure, it’s not unusual to find a successful British TV comedian struggle to establish himself in movies, particularly in Hollywood. For every Dudley Moore, who became a huge movie star in the States with Arthur and 10, you only have to look at Peter Cook – the true genius in that partnership – whose transatlantic film career barely made it beyond Supergirl.
Coogan has so far proven himself a lot better in smaller American movies: he’s brilliant as pompous English actor called Steve Coogan in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes (2003), and light but good in a rare dramatic role, as Count Mercy d’Anjou in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). Put him in something like Around The World In 80 Days (2004) or Night At The Museum (2006), and he just flounders. You could argue, perhaps, that the famously forensic attention to detail he puts into building his TV characters gets lost in the noise and spectacle of a Hollywood production. But then, having seen Tropic Thunder, where Coogan plays a pompous English director, it’s possible for him hit the mark in a big budget movie.
Maybe, too, there’s an argument that Coogan works better in British movies because his particular talents are instinctively familiar to a UK creative team. So far, the two best pieces of cinema on his CV are conspicuously homegrown: 24 Hour Party People (2002) and A Cock And Bull Story (2005), both directed by Michael Winterbottom.
I think why Coogan shines in Coffee & Cigarettes, 24 Hour Party People, A Cock And Bull Story and Tropic Thunder is because his characters are insufferable egomaniacs, and he’s very good at those. Which is also true of Dana Marschz, Coogan’s character in Hamlet 2. Marschz is a failed actor who now teaches drama at a high school in Tucson, Arizona. His pomposity masks a deep-rooted self-loathing and there’s issues with his father buried not-so-deeply too. He’s a failure who thinks he’s a misunderstood genius. There is certainly the makings of a classic Coogan creation, but Hamlet 2 is too broad and too lazy to make best use of its star’s talents.
As an actor, Marschz’s credits included a string of late-night commercials for herpes medication (which, like Tropic Thunder’s fake commercials we see at the film’s opening), an extra in an Al Jazeera TV movie and a weeks’ work as a stand-in for Robin Williams on Patch Adams. The supposed highlights of the school drama calendar are Marschz bi-yearly adaptations of Hollywood movies. We get to see his Erin Brockovich, and we learn he mounted a production of Mississippi Burning the previous year. But they’re awful, playing to a handful of bored looking parents, and routinely savaged by the pimply drama critic on the school paper. When the principal decides to axe drama, Marschz is spurred into action, writing, directing and starring in a rock’n’roll musical sequel to Hamlet in order to try and save his department. Hamlet 2 involves time travel, Jesus, Star Wars and much public exorcising of Marschz’s own Oedipal issues.
It is, needless to say, mind-numbingly bad. But not for the right reasons. One of the subjects Hamlet 2 swipes at is inspiration teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Mr Holland’s Opus and Dangerous Minds. But the idea that someone as punchable and probably deranged as Marschz could somehow bring out the best in his class of Hispanic gangbangers is a major flaw. As is the production of Hamlet 2 itself, which looks like it has the budget of the entire school behind it.
Thinking of Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman, another movie that similarly sent up the awfulness of talentless amateur dramatics, I’m struck by how little genuine wit there is in Hamlet 2. Coogan himself mugs and leers and crows, and certainly Marschz’s towering self-belief is occasionally reminiscent of Alan Partridge. “I just wondered why in Hamlet everyone had to die,” he says, by way of explaining why he wanted to write his sequel, which he later grandly describes as “a controversial piece of socialist agit-prop theatre.” But beyond these admittedly fantastic glimpses into Marschz’s delusional mind, everything else feels a little flat. Even Catherine Keener, as Marschz’s scathing wife, doesn’t quite elevate the material.
Still, at least there’s Tropic Thunder…
Hamlet 2 opens in the UK in November; you can see the trailer here