Dreams go to Tuscon to die for thwarted actor turned schoolteacher Dana Marschz, who this school year finds his drama class full of 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), 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 (who also directs) and Pam Brady (South Park) dole out snippets of just precisely what Hamlet 2 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 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 or just plain wrong.
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 he's 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 perseverance 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. Whatever it is, it's compulsively watchable and 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"; the ACLU turns out to protect Dana's freedom of speech. That Dana has poured out 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. (Rated R)