I kept flashing back to Christopher Guest's hilarious 1997 mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman, as I was watching this raucous 2008 comedy, and in this case, that turns out to be high praise. Directed and co-written in ramshackle fashion by Andrew Fleming (whose most prominent credits include the 2003 remake of The In-Laws and an episode of Arrested Development), this wacky concoction mixes broad slapstick, harmless raunch, and politically incorrect humor with a heavy, tongue-in-cheek dose of Dangerous Minds (referred to in the film) and every other cliché-driven movie about a schoolteacher who serves to inspire his students. The result is something of a mess when it comes to telling a coherent story, but it's also an infectious movie that had me laughing heartily during most of its 92-minute running time. It comes as no surprise that Fleming's writing partner is Pam Brady, who is most famous for producing and writing several episodes of South Park, as well as the 1999 movie version, South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The similarities are quite apparent.
The plot is predictably absurd and rather inspired. Manitoba-born Dana Marschz is a failed TV commercial actor who has ended up teaching drama in a Tucson high school. He has just finished directing a stage production of Erin Brockovich starring the only two students enthusiastic about his over-the-top, highly derivative approach to theater. Marschz is trying to earn the respect of the pre-adolescent critic of the school newspaper but to little effect. His wife Brie hates him and yet wants to have a child. At the same time, they are forced to take in a tight-lipped boarder named Gary to make ends meet. Things change dramatically on the first day of the new semester when Marschz inherits a classroom full of Latino students who could care less about drama. Told by the principal that drama would no longer be part of the school curriculum, Marschz decides to go out fighting and stage a long-gestating work-in-progress, a musical sequel to the Bard's most famous work entitled, of course, "Hamlet 2". What happens after that point is a freewheeling comedy of errors that gives Marschz's demented optimism the perfect vehicle.
Looking like Eric Idle's younger brother, Steve Coogan gives an audaciously funny performance as Marschz, a pitiable character in the most obvious ways but undeniably likeable. He flails somewhat during the more vulnerable moments probably because his performance is so otherwise manic and vainglorious. By comparison, Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair in "Guffman" has moments of weakness, but his character resonated more simply because the humor came from a more serious state of self-doubt. However, Coogan is a superb physical comedian, especially on his ever-present roller skates. Back in hippie-chick mode from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Catherine Keener is hilariously toxic as Brie, while Amy Poehler gets the funniest lines in her smallish role as ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein, an overly enthusiastic activist with a bigoted streak a mile wide.
Elisabeth Shue gets to play a parody of herself as washed up in Hollywood and forced into what she says is a more fulfilling career as a fertility clinic nurse. While she is charming as usual, Shue is not given nearly enough to do here. There are bright turns by Skylar Astin as the closeted Rand and Phoebe Strole as the unctuous Epiphany, both alumni of Broadway's Spring Awakening, as well as from Joseph Julian Soria as the brooding actor-wannabe Octavia. The normally hyperactive David Arquette plays strictly against type as near-silent Gary. The much ballyhooed production that provides the film's climax is not quite as outrageous as "Springtime for Hitler" in the original 1968 version of The Producers. However, it is funny enough despite the fact that "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" sounds like a familiar doo-wop song with wittier lyrics. I just wish Brady and Fleming spent a bit more time on consolidating the plot structure. Some of the story meanders without reason, and then it just stops without incident. Regardless, there is plenty of laugh-out-loud entertainment here for the undemanding viewer.