Art Is Happening
You could almost call it, Where Do Dreams Go to Die?, this satire that’s so insightful about art and hope and ambition and enthusiasm — and their flip sides of anger and frustration and embarrassment and derailment — that it’s actually painful at times. Painful in a good way, that is, where it pricks so close to home, for all its broad absurdity, in anyone who yearns for a creative, significant, passionate life that you’ll want to cry as much as you’ll want to laugh.
Dreams go to miserable Tuscon, Arizona, to die for thwarted actor turned schoolteacher Dana Marschz, who this school year finds his drama class full of seemingly coolly detached louts stuck with the only elective left open now that the auto shop has been shut down. When further budget cuts threaten to shut down Marschz, too, desperation drives him to extremes, and he plans a mounting of his own original musical, Hamlet 2. As his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener: Into the Wild, Capote), notes, yes, it’s true that almost everyone dies at the end of the first one… and that’s where the time machine comes in.
Screenwriters Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew) and Pam Brady (Team America: World Police, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) — Fleming also directs — dole out snippets of just precisely what Hamlet 2, the musical, is about in cleverly small doses, so that for a long time we’re never quite sure whether we’ll see any of the play itself at all. And that’s perfect, because the film is not about the play but about its creator, and his raging against the terrible smallness of his life. The brilliant British satirist Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder, Hot Fuzz), putting on an earnest Canadian-ness (Dana is an immigrant), is actually hard to watch at times, he’s so raw and honest in how he strips Dana of all dignity in the teacher’s search for meaning and feeling in his life, often to the point where Dana’s either just plain pathetic, as in how he longs to please the middle-school critic who savages his school productions; just plain pushy, as in how he latches onto his new friend, Elisabeth Shue (playing herself; Gracie, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story), as the one touchstone of celebrity and fabulousness he can find; or just plain wrong, as in how badly an encounter with the parents of one reluctant student turns out, though it’s far too late for Dana to do anything to fix the situation once he realizes how dreadfully mistaken he is about his own motives.
There’s an Ed Wood kind of urgency and anxiety in Dana’s whole-body railing against the mundane and the aloof. Coogan is wickedly amusing imbuing heartfelt intensity into dialogue like “Art is happening!” (“So stop it,” someone replies), but even funnier — and by “funnier” I mean “sadder and wiser yet also paradoxically hilarious” — when he’s using his body as comic crutch: Watching Dana trying to roller skate is one of the more wretched things I’ve ever seen, but the way Coogan fires Dana’s perserverance for the task is genius.
Art — and life! — can be just as hard even when you’re good at them, and we’re never quite sure whether Dana is waiting for Guffman or just for the “demon bitch” of hope to abandon him. We do finally get some sustained glimpses of Hamlet 2, and it’s debatable whether it’s brilliant by design, brilliant by accident, or horrendously awful but compulsively watchable and merely accidentally illustrative of all of Dana’s inner torments. An extended riff in the second half of the film involves protests against the play, which have sprung up in the wake of the news that one of the musical numbers is called “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” and the resultant action by the ACLU to protect Dana’s freedom of speech. That Dana has poured out of his soul onto a high-school drama-club stage is really all the defense his work needs, however, for there can be nothing truly offensive in what turns out to be so sweetly aching a cry for forgiveness, reconciliation, sympathy, and support.