Hamlet 2HAMLET 2

Hamlet 2 has been designed as a broad farce, but I'll tell you: In the movie's climactic number, when Hamlet and Jesus took their time machine back to the night of Hamlet's death, and Hamlet prevented Gertrude from drinking the poisoned wine, and Hamlet found it in himself to finally forgive his father, and the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus sang Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," it was pretty damned moving.

Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

For fans of Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (and our numbers are becoming legion), perhaps the best I can say about director/co-writer Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2 is that while it isn't quite Guffman-good, it's close, which is really saying something. And with Steve Coogan playing high-school drama teacher Dana Marschz, it even boasts a leading performance on a par with Guest's clueless visionary Corky St. Clair. The movie follows Coogan's hypochondriacal, admittedly talent-free hack as he attempts to stage a self-written follow-up to Shakespeare's "bummer" of a play - in the hopes of saving his school's soon-to-be-dissolved drama department - and the comedian is almost madly inspired in it. He burrows so deeply into his role as a vain, self-centered dolt with theatre fever and daddy issues that he oftentimes borders on the repulsive, but Coogan is too much of a natural entertainer to let an audience suffer; Marschz's self-pity, self-loathing, and self-aggrandizement are always robustly hysterical.

Yet as with Corky, Coogan's creation also grows unexpectedly touching, as does Hamlet 2 itself. By the time the sci-fi/bi-curious opus that is Marschz's sequel is ready to be staged - and the play has drawn the ire of school groups and parents, and piqued the interest of national news outlets and the ACLU (personified by a hilariously curt Amy Poehler) - you find yourself inordinately invested in the performance's success and/or crashing and burning; you want "Hamlet 2" to be good, or at least enjoyably terrible, because you've grown to really like the show's participants in all of their hard-working, sweetly oblivious glory. For such a goofy endeavor, the movie has unexpected narrative punch.

It also has its problems, as a lot of Hamlet 2's comedic conceits wind up leading next to nowhere - Marschz's acid trip is a particular letdown - and others seem eccentric merely for eccentricity's sake. (The actress is endearing and funny, yet the subplot involving Elisabeth Shue playing Elisabeth Shue could have been excised with no noticeable loss.) But these are merely momentary lulls. From the staging of Marschz's Erin Brockovich adaptation to Catherine Keener's sensationally acidic performance as the director's wife to the musical finale that finds the thespians tearing it up to "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," Hamlet 2 is fantastic fun. Before seeing the movie, I spoke to friends who'd caught it in Iowa City, and one of them said it was "an ungodly mess" before adding "and I loved it." It is an ungodly mess. And it might take three or four more viewings to be sure, but I think I loved it, too.


Guy Pearce and Don Cheadle in TraitorTRAITOR

Writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor is a fine entertainment, but it's an even better star vehicle for Don Cheadle, who plays a Sudan-born American operative infiltrating an Arabic terrorist cell, and subsequently thought to be a terrorist by FBI officials not clued in on his mission. For much of the movie, Cheadle is forced to keep his character's true motives hidden from his Muslim allies, the U.S. officials on his tail, and even the audience, and he's a magnificently (yet subtly) powerful presence here; the actor's tightly coiled intensity, detailing plot through the slightest changes in expression and timbre, is a thrill to witness. This speedy, alert thriller has been shot and edited with admirable zest, even when (as often happens) it lapses into contrivance and borderline ludicrousness, and it's been given extra gravitas through assured, honest performances by Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Jeff Daniels, and Saïd Taghmaoui. All in all, Traitor is a gripping, impressive piece of work, and with Cheadle as the movie's effortlessly engaging and empathetic lead, it's something always welcome among cineplex options: serious-minded silliness made with incredible skill.


Ice Cube and Keke Palmer in The LongshotsTHE LONGSHOTS

The Longshots, director Fred Durst's inspirational sports drama about the first female quarterback in Pop Warner football history (played here by the wonderfully naturalistic Keke Palmer), is so sincere and good-humored and surprisingly not maudlin that I was completely won over before the movie was even 20 minutes old. (Ice Cube hasn't been this relaxed and enjoyable on-screen in years.) And this family flick does such a solid job of maintaining an earnest, friendly veneer that it didn't even annoy me when the clichés began being poured on fast and furious, such as when the head coach had the expected heart attack and had to pass on the coaching reins to Cube's former star athlete, or when Cube told his team of underdogs, "We've got heart, and that's all we need," or when the manipulative plinky-plunky music refused to just give it a rest already ... . Okay, so it annoyed me a little.

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