Like other "backstage dramas" involving Hamlet, Andrew Fleming's 2008 film, Hamlet 2, revolves around an out-of-work, mediocre actor who seeks to save the world through his Shakespearean revival. While the film's most obvious predecessors—Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale (1995) and Allison LiCalsi's Hamlet and His Problems (1997)—are conspicuously about Hamlet, Hamlet 2 barely cites Shakespeare; in fact, the only apparent allusion to the play occurs in the figure of the depressed dramaturge—" Dana Marschz" (played by comedian Steve Coogan)—whose first and last names suggest Shakespeare's gloomy Danish low-lander. Nevertheless, what all three films have in common is, oddly enough, a heavy-handed use of religion: Branagh's spinoff is about a provincial production of Hamlet performed in a Church, while LiCalsi's short film tells the story of an actor who doubts he can play Hamlet until a Jesuit priest convinces him otherwise. Hamlet 2 trumps these religious premises as a film that features a musical comedy-within that stars neither Hamlet nor Shakespeare but, rather, Jesus Christ. This strange variation on Hamlet's own play-within-a-play of "The Mousetrap" is best described as Shakespeare-meets-Jesus Christ Superstar.
Indeed, Hamlet 2 adopts a messianic and, simultaneously, increasingly irreligious arc—so much so that Dana's allegedly "pornographic" show can only go on with the help of an ass-kicking ACLU attorney (played by [End Page 421] comedienne Amy Poehler), whose gutter mouth recalls the very worst of Old Hamlet's own foul crimes. And therein lies the real rub: for this film, despite its spiritual theme of forgiveness, specifically, forgiving the father—not to mention its utopian vision of Shakespeare as the catalyst of a pluralistic democracy—is utterly preoccupied with the phenomenon of patriarchy in decline. Written and released against the backdrop of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's unprecedented bids for world power, Hamlet 2 is less about the "second coming" of Shakespeare's most famous play than it is a repository of the cultural anxieties generated by these respective campaigns. In fact, I will argue that this film is really a "coming out party" of sorts for a reinvigorated, albeit slightly compromised, vision of patriarchal order that proleptically depicts—and successfully predicts—the outcome of the 2008 election.
The film opens with campy visions of the protagonist, Dana Marschz, appearing in low-budget commercials, as well as performing a humiliating "cameo" in a Xena: Warrior-Princess episode. Superimposed over shots of Dana in the Jack LaLanne Juicer ad, the Xena scene, and an equally denigrating commercial for Herpicol, is a God-like voice that waxes rhapsodic about the profession of acting. The disjuncture between sound and image here is played for laughs, as the disembodied, BBC-inflected voice describes the life of the thespian as nothing less than a calling of religious proportions:
To act is to live.To act is to breathe the poet's breath.It is to embody the dreams of man.To live as an actor is to live a dream. . .
"But dreams," the narrator intones, now sounding rather like Hamlet's own melancholy musings, "are ephemeral . . . and so we must ask: where do dreams go to die?" Immediately, the film cuts to a wide-angle shot of a pick-up truck trolling past a sign that reads: "Welcome to Tucson, Arizona." So begins Hamlet 2, which, based on this opening assertion of ontological inertia, has more in common with Shakespeare's play than just its title. For as his swampy surname implies, Marschz is stuck—stuck not only in a place where no one appreciates the difference between Oscars and Tony Awards, but, more importantly, stuck in time—a theme that [End Page 422] shares a profound resonance with Hamlet. Caught somewhere between the subjunctive past and the future conditional, Dana should have been a great actor (and may yet become one), but he is haunted by what he obliquely refers to as his "bad relationship with [his] father," which constantly impedes his efforts simply "to be"—let alone to move forward and...