Imagine you’re a young filmmaker who has just received notice that your debut film has just been accepted at Sundance. Congratulations! You’ve made it! You’re on your way! Fuck “aspiring,” you’re a real filmmaker! (Also, you’re the man now, dog.) All those years of enduring condescending looks when you tell people you’re a filmmaker—of scrimping and saving to shoot short films with your buddies—have paid off. You’re breathing some rarified air on your way to a magical festival where stars are made and dreams are born. If nothing else, you’ll be able to eat off this for decades. Fifteen years from now, you’ll be able to impress people at bars by nonchalantly mentioning, “I made a movie. Made a little splash. Played Sundance. Standing ovation. No biggie.”
Sundance proves even more fantastical than you could possibly have imagined. You’re rubbing elbows with the big boys, drinking in as many movies as possible, enjoying the camaraderie of your fellow filmmakers (one even gave you a handjob!) and being treated like a big shot by people with the power to make and break careers. It’s through-the-looking-glass time. You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. You can almost feel your life changing.
Then your film finally debuts to a packed house. It’s a sold-out screening! And the crowd loves it! They laugh at all the right parts, cry at the end, and give you a standing ovation. Holy shit. This is better than you could have ever imagined. Offers are bound to pour in. You’ll be the belle of the ball, this year’s sensation, the next Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino.
Then something strange happens. Offers fail to materialize. The power brokers who once shook your hand and shot you big smiles avert their gaze when they pass. You begin to lower your expectations. Maybe a huge payday and wide release is unrealistic. You’ll settle for a modest payday and a limited theatrical release, maybe a few arthouse theaters, something like that. When that fails to come to fruition, you tell yourself “Fuck it, I’ll settle for a DVD release,” but you go home empty. Months later, you still haven’t sold your project. You’ve ended up with a very expensive home movie.
But what about that acceptance letter? What about that packed crowd? What about the standing ovation? As you brood, sulk, and feel sorry for yourself—emotions that will power your next screenplay, a dark comedy about a filmmaker who enters a harrowing tailspin after his film doesn’t sell at a prestigious festival—you begin to realize that Sundance is a world unto itself, where everyone’s a winner—they made it into the festival, didn’t they?—and the audience has a rooting interest in seeing independent filmmakers succeed. You also come to understand that applause and standing ovations are degraded commodities at a festival where they’re doled out liberally, maybe even indiscriminately. You discover that the world outside the comforting womb of Park City can feel awfully chilly.
That’s the worst-case scenario for someone whose film rocked Sundance. This Case File chronicles the ultimate best-case scenario for a Sundance filmmaker, and how it all turned to shit, seemingly overnight. It’s how a cinematic Cinderella became princess for a night (or a festival, as it were), only to return to a world of drudgery and failure when her chariot turned back into a pumpkin.
Yes, 2008’s Hamlet 2 was a consummate Sundance success story before it became a harrowing Sundance cautionary warning. A rough edit of the film wasn’t even prepared until three days before its Sundance debut, but once audiences and buyers got a look at it, a fierce all-night bidding war ensued. Focus Features ended up winning the bidding war when it ponied up $10 million for the worldwide rights, one of the biggest deals in the history of the festival.
Focus was intent on making back the $10 million it paid even if that meant spending $50 million on advertising. So it unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg that rammed the film down the collective throat of its potential audience. Moviegoers were so inundated with advertising and prefabricated buzz that they were liable to be sick of the movie before it opened.
Outside the loving confines of Park City, Hamlet 2 died a gruesome death, earning just under $5 million. A British release was postponed, then canceled altogether, which is especially embarrassing, considering that star Steve Coogan is one of the leading lights of British comedy. Critics split violently. Some derided it as ramshackle, vulgar, and hit-and-miss. Others heralded it as hilarious. They’re both right. (If not hilarious, it’s at least pretty damn funny.)
In the role that was supposed to make him a star, a terrific, deeply committed Coogan plays a failed actor who keeps despair at bay by hiding behind an impregnable wall of self-delusion. His character’s career topped out with bit parts in Xena: Warrior Princess and commercials for Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer And Herpes Medication, but as the film begins, he stubbornly refuses to let go of his dreams, even if that means rollerblading to a high school in Tucson, Arizona to teach theater to juvenile delinquents in exchange for gas money.
As Coogan realizes in a rare moment of clarity, his life has devolved into a parody of a tragedy. His wife (Catherine Keener) does nothing to hide her contempt for her deluded dandy of a husband, or the raging self-hatred she feels for being married to such a ridiculous creature. She stumbles into an affair with lodger David Arquette because he meets her only three criteria for a man: He isn’t Coogan, he’s already in her home, and he doesn’t talk too much. He’s already there, so she might as well fuck him.
At work, a barely pubescent critic for the school newspaper eviscerates Coogan’s theatrical adaptations of Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning. Coogan is naïve enough to treat the every pronouncement of this pint-sized would-be John Lahr like a Zen koan. So when Coogan floats the idea of saving the school’s drama department by staging a giddily blasphemous musical named Hamlet 2, and the kiddie-critic responds with a measured, “Sometimes an idea can be so bad it turns good again,” Coogan has all the motivation he needs to stage the titular toe-tapping atrocity.
Hamlet 2 belongs equally to several of my favorite subgenres. It’s part parody of inspirational teacher movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dead Poets Society, part mid-life-crisis comedy, and part scrappy let’s-put-on-a-show crowd-pleaser. Here, the inspirational teacher is a dithering—albeit well-meaning—buffoon, and the troubled Latino gang-banger he struggles to redeem is actually an upper-middle-class honors student with early admission to Brown, as Coogan learns in this clip:
Coogan loves show business, not wisely but too well: He’s a true believer even when he has nothing to believe in. He’s a true believer especially when he has nothing to believe in. He’s in love with the art and spectacle of acting, even when the reality is dreary and depressing, as in this opening bit where Coogan’s lofty words about the nobility of acting—
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 are ephemeral and sometimes impossible, so we must ask, “Where do dreams go to die?”
—accompany a “highlight” reel that’s more like a gauntlet of professional nadirs.
Coogan plays the hapless protagonist with seemingly indefatigable good cheer and a permanent stage grin that almost, but never entirely, conceals the desperation at the core of his being. He holds onto his hard-won sobriety—he warns his students, “It’s a slippery slope. Beer, liquor, coke, dope. Crystal meth, chicks with dicks, and jail”—as a rare success in a life and career rife with failure.
But when he discovers that Keener has finally gotten pregnant—with Arquette’s child—he falls off the wagon hard. Yet even as he lurches into the gutter, Coogan senses that redemption is within his grasp. Like Andy Hardy before him, Coogan realizes that everything rides on putting on a great show, or at least a show that’s great in its almost-inconceivable awfulness.
Hamlet 2 was co-written and directed by Andrew Fleming, of Dick and Nancy Drew semi-fame, but its dominant creative voice belongs to Pam Brady, a longtime Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborator with writing credits on South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police, as well as previous Case File Hot Rod.
Hamlet 2 and with Parker and Stone’s work share fearless provocation; a Hellzapoppin’-like sense of comic excess; a deep, only semi-ironic love of musical theater at its cheesiest; and a sometimes-lazy reliance on pop-culture references as punchlines. Hamlet 2 is cartoonish in a positive and pejorative sense: it’s unencumbered by even the fuzziest notion of realism or restraint.
In a virtual replay of The Producers, Coogan’s production becomes a sensation precisely because it’s so cheerfully, deliriously awful, a surrealistic, free-associating muddle that re-imagines Grease as an unlikely buddy comedy between Jesus—played by Coogan as a cornball square’s conception of the ultimate cool guy—and Hamlet, who hops aboard a time machine to stop all the unpleasantness at the end of the eponymous play.
Alas, the public found the siren song of “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” awfully easy to resist. Nor were they shocked by it. Brady’s cohorts over at South Park raised the bar for shock comedy and transgression to almost prohibitively high levels. Nothing’s shocking; the sight of greaser girls swooning with lust over the rock-hard abs of the Christian Messiah would barely raise an eyebrow over at South Park.
Hamlet 2 benefited from the general dearth of levity and comedy at Sundance. After being inundated with days on end of, to borrow South Park’s resonant turn of phrase, independent films about “gay cowboys eating pudding,” dispirited audiences were salivating at the prospect of a funny, goofy movie, no matter how sloppy or slapdash. Sundance is a cinematic alternate universe, where tomorrow’s losers are today’s champions, and miserablist fare about depressed coalminers play to packed houses and rapturous applause. In this context, it’s easy to see why Focus could look at a rough cut of Hamlet 2 and think it had the next Little Miss Sunshine in its grasp. Blame it on Sundance-induced myopia, blame it on the hype, or to paraphrase Jamie Foxx, you can blame it on the al-al-al-al-titude.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success