Not too long ago, a legendary Hollywood deal maker told me he liked Grease II, thought Rent was an endurable experience, but maintained that watching High School Musical made these two song-and-dance cheese fests look like The Sound of Music. For some reason, a great deal of America, most presumably under the age when driver’s training becomes an issue, disagrees sharply. (It was the most successful DVD release of a television movie ever, selling 1.2 million copies in its first week.) I mention this because Disney is about to unveil HSMIII, and, in case you were wondering, Hamlet 2, cowritten by South Park‘s Pam Brady, for all of its highbrow farcing pretensions, is really nothing more than a savagely weird and all-together welcome satire of the High School franchise: a finger in the face of the House of Mouse.
Mostly, however, you’ll want to see it for the mercurial Steve Coogan, who plays demon-tortured drama teacher Dana Marschz (pronounced Marsh-suh-zuh-sss). Coogan, whose decapitated head was unquestionably the best feature of Tropic Thunder, is as intelligently edgy as Ben Stiller thinks he is-a considerable boast. Coogan can play anything convincingly, from a druggy, smart wastrel in 24 Hour Party People to a cruelly clueless hack as BBC’s “Alan Partridge” to this failed artist, whose acute self-absorption ensures his eventual theatrical fame. The rest is goofiness-the stars who round out this determinedly tasteless romp seem odd: Elisabeth Shue as herself, David Arquette as a shlub, and Amy Poehler playing an ACLU attorney. Only Catherine Keener is precisely who you think she will be as bitchy Brie Marschsz.
It’s not as brilliantly hilarious as Team America: World Police. Hamlet II begins in an almost anti-comic mood of half jokes that slide into low surrealism. But it ends with the predictable crescendo, a musical with tunes like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” Unfortunately the film, like Tropic Thunder, courts the genre cliches rather than subverting them. But its great strength lies in the America it imagines: so weird that barely talented teenagers can become insanely famous for dancing a lot of tripe.